Abbreviations: The Contention = The First Part of the Contention betwixt the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster; H5 = Henry V; 1H6 = Henry VI, Part 1; 2H6 = Henry VI, Part 2; 3H6 = Henry VI, Part 3; John = King John; R2 = Richard II; R3 = Richard III; RSC = Royal Shakespeare Company; Union = The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke
Bernthal, Craig A. “Treason in the Family: The Trial of Thumpe v. Horner.” Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991): 44–54.
Bernthal analyzes the Thump versus Horner story in 1.3 and 2.3 in light of Tudor doctrines of order and obedience essential to political and family structures of the period. Each year, thousands of boys came to London to become apprentices, thereby entering into “new micropolitical units: the families of their masters,” to whom, for all intents and purposes, they swore a loyalty oath. A contextual understanding of the patriarchal nature of the master-apprentice relationship reveals that the Thump v. Horner episode “tugs the audience in opposite directions: toward satisfaction about the victory of a loyal subject over a treasonous one, and toward dis-ease that such a victory is achieved by a servant against his master.” On the surface, the episode replays the David vs. Goliath story, Thump’s “ideological function” being to prove Henry VI’s divinely sanctioned kingship. On a deeper level, however, the apprentice’s victory dramatizes “Tudor England’s prevailing social nightmare—betrayal to the authorities by friends, servants, family.” By demonstrating loyalty to the crown, Thump’s exposure of his master clearly contains subversive activity but at the expense of loyalty to the patriarchal family, the “fundamental political building block of the ideal commonwealth.”
Berry, Edward I. “2 Henry VI: Justice and Law.” In Patterns of Decay: Shakespeare’s Early Histories, pp. 29–52. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1975.
Whereas 1H6 explores the death of chivalry and ceremony in medieval England, 2H6 centers on the death of the rule of law. Appropriately, the play begins with the interrupted reading of a legal agreement, a marriage contract; the subsequent dramatic action involves such legal terms and procedures as the right of petition exercised by the commoners before Suffolk and Queen Margaret; a trial by combat; the trial and punishment of Eleanor, the Duchess of Gloucester; an “ad hoc adjudication” of the St. Albans “miracle”; preparations for Gloucester’s trial as Lord Protector; and an insurrection designed to overthrow all law. Like Talbot, who embodies the virtue of chivalry in Part 1, Humphrey of Gloucester personifies the law in Part 2; both men die as martyrs for a principle abandoned by the rest of society. Two contrasting views of the law contribute to a growing sense of social and political dissolution: Henry’s belief that law is, above all else, “the law of God, executed directly and unambiguously by the king in earthly judgments” and York’s belief in the rights of natural superiority over those of hierarchy and primogeniture. After Cade’s rebellion, which symbolically extends the anarchy York implicitly sanctions, the play ends with lawlessness “achiev[ing] its apotheosis in civil war.” As part of the first tetralogy, 2H6 depicts the second stage in a process of decay that begins with the death of Henry V and continues through the breakdown of the family in 3H6 and of the self in R3.
Blanpied, John W. “Henry VI, Part 2: ‘Undoing all as all had never been.’ ” In Time and the Artist in Shakespeare’s English Histories, pp. 42–63. Newark: University of Delaware Press; Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1983. (The chapter incorporates “The Henry VI Plays: In Pursuit of the Ground,” Susquehanna University Studies 10 : 197–209.)
Viewed from a metatheatrical perspective, 2H6 “enacts a cultural collapse,” which Blanpied analyzes by focusing on three characters: the mirror figures of the “self-absenting” Henry and the “self-aggrandizing York,” and the tragic figure in the middle, Gloucester, whose rigidity in bodying forth the law is “both his strength and weakness.” As the first scene flows from “Henry’s static ceremony, through Gloucester’s reckless passion, and into York’s compacted monologue,” its structure “adumbrates the course of the play itself by demonstrating how power will be transferred from King to Protector to Usurper.” While this three-way relationship provides an “elegant structure” that appears to subdue the “weight and diffusion” of the text’s various characters, episodes, speaking styles, and on- and offstage rhythms, the result is one of “emotional incoherence.” Gloucester’s line “Undoing all, as all had never been” (1.1.108) holds the key to the “disintegrative energies” that affect characterization and overall design. Henry increasingly manifests a self-conscious desire to be absent; Gloucester’s character emerges as being the product of Henry’s “own self-evasion”; and York’s various improvisations anticipate their own dissolution in his belief in an all-consuming role as “England’s lawful king.” In Act 4, as Cade’s rebellion gets under way and the anarchic surrogate becomes a monster that his creator cannot control, the design itself begins to dissolve. Finally, in the tableaux-like scenes of Act 5, the violence proceeds without audience involvement, the main characters “dwindle . . . to puppetry,” and new characters with no interior life suddenly appear (e.g., Richard and Young Clifford). The author contends that Shakespeare allows the play to disintegrate “in hopes of finding out the sources of disintegration”; the downside of this choice is an abandonment of the artist’s role “of making chaos humanly intelligible.” In 2H6, Shakespeare “looked for sources of corruptibility in human experience and found himself looking at the corruptibility of his medium.”
Cartelli, Thomas. “Jack Cade in the Garden: Class Consciousness and Class Conflict in Henry VI, Part 2.” In Enclosure Acts: Sexuality, Property, and Culture in Early Modern England, edited by Richard Burt and John Michael Archer, pp. 48–67. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.
Cartelli’s essay addresses the issue of agricultural enclosure in early modern England by examining Cade’s invasion of Alexander Iden’s garden, a scene that “memorably stages claims for and against property.” Although both men sound the pastoral note as the scene begins, Cade’s “utilitarian” version of pastoral contrasts with Iden’s idyllic construction of his garden state: Cade believes that “the lord of the soil” has walked forth for the sole purpose of “seiz[ing] me for a stray, for entering his fee-simple without leave” (4.10.25–27); Iden, on the other hand, thinks of his walk in the garden as a demonstration of a peaceful life “neatly balanced between private pleasure and social obligation.” Cade’s “legalistic and oppositional estimate” of his meeting with Iden derives from “a thoroughly class-conscious and class-stratified position”: namely, that Iden’s garden is “enclosed private property, not in any sense . . . a public or common domain.” As the scene turns violent, Cade’s “obstreperousness” reveals the extent to which Iden’s notion of the garden—a place where rich and poor can meet on common ground—is “a deeply privileged ideological construction.” By contesting the garden’s “ideological hold . . . over all concerned parties, Cade effectively unlocks its actual status as a space intersected by mutually exclusive and competing class interests.” The author finds a “politically motivated class consciousness” central to the play’s discourse and contends that Jack Cade constitutes “the most realized example” in Shakespeare of a character “who is able to transform his political subjection into something amounting to our modern sense of class-based resistance.”
Chartier, Roger. “Jack Cade, the Skin of a Dead Lamb, and the Hatred for Writing.” Shakespeare Studies 34 (2006): 77–89.
Chartier examines Cade’s vitriolic hatred of all things written in the context of early modern thinking on the merits of oral versus written testimony. By the time the play was written, although “viva vox,” the living voice, was granted superiority over parchment in matters relating to evidentiary testimony, Europe’s legal, judicial, and administrative procedures were moving more systematically toward a preference for written documents “as instruments of proof and authentication.” In constructing Cade’s anti-writing discourse, Shakespeare conflated the 1450 rebellion (which manifested no hostility for the written culture) and the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt (which involved the destruction of legal records and instruments). The conflation of the two events imparts to the Cade scenes “the status of an ‘exemplum,’ ” but with a “profound distortion” of what the rebels of 1381 were protesting; for unlike Cade and his men, the historical rebels had as their targets poll tax receipts, legal records, and the Inns of Court, not books, libraries, and intellectual culture. In Cade’s “impossible restoration of a time liberated from the oppressive power of writing,” we should, perhaps, see “the lasting nostalgia for orality and the anxieties created by the growing power of writing” in the early modern period. Despite his rigid opposition between the spoken word and the printed word, Cade’s anti-writing campaign “paradoxically helps us to refuse the simplifications . . . that have deeded to us a historical narrative according to which rationality and modernity are exclusively identified with the written culture.”
Harris, Laurie Lanzen, and Mark W. Scott, eds. “Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3.” In Shakespearean Criticism: Excerpts from the Criticism of William Shakespeare’s Plays and Poetry from the First Published Appraisals to Current Evaluations, 3:11–164. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986.
This volume presents significant passages from published criticism on the three parts of H6. The set of passages is introduced by a brief discussion of the “date,” “text,” and “sources,” followed by a longer discussion of the “critical history” of the plays. Each entry, beginning with Robert Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit (1592) and ending with Marilyn French’s Shakespeare’s Division of Experience (1981), is prefaced with a brief historical overview that places the excerpted document in the context of responses to the play. Of the almost sixty entries, early commentary derives from Thomas Nashe (1592), John Crowne (1681), Gerard Langbaine (1691), and from such eighteenth-century editors as Nicholas Rowe, Lewis Theobald, Edward Capell, Samuel Johnson, and Edmond Malone; nineteenth-century critics are represented by such figures as William Hazlitt, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Hermann Ulrici, and Georg Gottfried Gervinus; entries from the twentieth century include excerpts from the writings of Carolyn Spurgeon, E. M. W. Tillyard, Hereward Price, Wolfgang Clemen, Muriel C. Bradbrook, Harold Goddard, David Bevington, Irving Ribner, Robert Ornstein, Michael Manheim, John Cox, and Larry Champion. A briefly annotated bibliography of fifty-five additional items concludes the section. A subsequent volume, edited by Michele Lee (2002), updates the criticism through the 1990s under such headings as Character Study, Henry VI as Comedy, Playing with History, and Unity and Design (vol. 63, pp. 113–218).
Helgerson, Richard. “Staging Exclusion.” In Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England, pp. 193–246. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
In his study of how a single generation of Elizabethan writers spanning the fields of poetry, law, cartography, travel writing, drama, and ecclesiastical policy laid the foundation for England’s development from a dynastic kingdom to the modern nation-state, Helgerson discusses Shakespeare’s history plays as the dramatist’s major contribution to this “generational project” of “writing England.” The focus of the chapter is The Contention, which Helgerson refers to as the text “we now know as [2H6].” What fascinates him is the inclusiveness of 1.1, in which no one onstage is under the rank of an earl and yet much of the talk is about doing well by “the people,” who are made “fundamental to the nation’s identity and to the legitimacy of its governing order” (see, e.g., 1.1.165, 190, 200, 206, 207, 212–14). Although the play was written by a commoner, performed by commoners, and played before an audience of mostly commoners, the italicizing of the popular presence in the opening scene does not conform to Shakespeare’s general practice in the history genre, where he often seems to identify England “exclusively with its kings and nobles.” While the first two-thirds of The Contention are open and univocal in their political ideology, the Cade rebellion in the last third “pushes [the] inclusionist ideal toward its own exclusionist extreme,” the treatment of the rebels exposing popular rule “as inimical to the very existence of the institution by which it and other plays like it were produced.” Abandoning the position with which it began, The Contention violently pits peasants and craftsmen against nobles. For Helgerson, the play’s inclusion-to-exclusion dynamic mirrors what was happening to the theater in the transitional 1590s, when the “institutional setting” of Shakespeare’s history plays, patronized by the Crown and nobility but dependent for its income on a popular audience, “was riven by internal animosities that set . . . university-educated poets against the professional players for whom they wrote.” The exclusive tendencies of the former would eventually prevail in the shift from a players’ theater to an authors’ theater. In their “fixation on monarchic power,” Shakespeare’s history plays “contributed at once to the consolidation of central power, to the cultural division of class from class, and to the emergence of the playwright—Shakespeare himself—as both gentleman and poet.” As Shakespeare continued to write, the less privileged still had a place in his audience, but they lost their place in the dramatist’s representation of England.
Hodgdon, Barbara. “Enclosing Contention: 1, 2, and 3 Henry VI.” In The End Crowns All: Closure and Contradiction in Shakespeare’s History, pp. 44–99. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.
Combining performance criticism (mostly of RSC productions) with study of the play texts, Hodgdon explores “closural strategies” in the three parts of H6. In the commentary specifically devoted to Part 2 (pp. 59–68), she finds the contrasting title pages of the 1594 Quarto text (The Contention) and the 1623 Folio text (2H6) to be useful guides to understanding the play’s structure and closure. With no mention of the King or Queen Margaret, the lengthy title of the Quarto “maps out . . . its multiple centers of narrative privilege”: Duke Humphrey, Suffolk, Winchester, Cade, and York. The much shorter Folio title “predicts another play, one that centers on the King and his surrogate father-Protector.” The Quarto’s title indicates a “two-part narrative strategy” that involves a division of the kingdom resulting in the deaths of Gloucester and Winchester and then a reopening of the action with two events that close the play: Cade’s insurrection and York’s efforts “to reconstitute the monarchy, with himself as King.” The Folio’s title is equally helpful in the way it signals what might be called 2H6’s “internal close, where power is transferred from Protector to King.” The first half of the play deals with the female misrule of Gloucester’s and Henry’s ambitious wives; the second, with “another form of festival inversion: Cade’s transgressive pseudosocialist commonwealth.” Although both texts look forward to Henry’s future Parliament and to another confrontation that will secure the throne, the Quarto is less hesitant than the “ambiguous ‘Lancastrian’ ” Folio in relocating “true” right in York. Hodgdon claims that “the existence of two versions of a play that duplicates, even reduplicates, kingship constitutes one of the rarest coincidences in the strange, eventful history of Shakespeare’s multiple-text plays.” Later in the chapter (pp. 76–99), the author discusses the play’s stage life as performed in John Barton and Peter Hall’s The Wars of the Roses (RSC, 1963), Terry Hands’s “(relatively) uncut and unadapted” revival of the complete H6 trilogy (RSC, 1977), Michael Bogdanov’s The Wars of the Roses (English Shakespeare Company, 1988), and Adrian Noble’s The Plantagenets (RSC, 1988).
Hutson, Lorna. “Noises Off: Participatory Justice in 2 Henry VI.” In The Law in Shakespeare, edited by Karen Cunningham and Constance Jordan, pp. 143–66. London: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2007.
In her reading of 2H6, Hutson refutes the tradition of identifying early modern legal processes with decisions reached by official figures of the court. She argues instead for an emerging sense of “participatory justice,” which depended on “the collection of evidence rendered to the court by the testimony of witnesses who, expecting to be interrogated, needed to have ‘forensic or detective habits of mind.’ ” Central to the essay is Warwick’s description of Duke Humphrey’s corpse (3.2.164–85), a form of coroner’s inquest in response to the outrage of the people. Prior to the speech, which belongs “to the judicial culture of the pretrial examination of the later sixteenth century,” the intrigues and legal/judicial corruption of the first two acts reveal the law as “nothing but aristocratic power cloaked in procedure.” That image changes with the important stage direction “Noise within” (3.2.125), a powerful signal of the offstage presence of the commons. In keeping with the English criminal justice system, it is the people who first call for an investigation of Duke Humphrey’s death, “and in responding to that call, Warwick enfolds us, the audience, into his response to the commons.” While his simile of an “angry hive of bees” (3.2.129–31) implicitly raises the threat of a mob’s unconstrained violence, it also recalls the traditional image of the res publica as a beehive, common in sixteenth-century political treatises, and thus identifies the noise of the people with “the commonwealth,” i.e., with the public interest. In contrast to the popular rebellion that erupts in the next act, “the appeal to the intelligent judgement and moral passion of the commons implied in Warwick’s forensic inquiry offers a powerfully utopian image of participatory justice as a form of the commons’ political agency.”
Lee, Patricia-Ann. “Reflections of Power: Margaret of Anjou and the Dark Side of Queenship.” Renaissance Quarterly 39 (1986): 183–217.
Lee compares Shakespeare’s depiction of Margaret of Anjou in 2 and 3H6 and R3 with depictions of the historical Margaret found in letters and other documentary records. The queen who appears in the plays as pitiless and cruel but also determined and vigorous shares much with her historical counterpart, but the theatrical image was “overlaid” with years of cumulative bias and myth that had already made Margaret “the symbol of a particular kind of female ruler and a pattern of negative feminine power.” Shakespeare’s “archetypal villainess”—the product of both his own artistic creativity and a tradition established by generations of propagandists and chroniclers—serves as a commentary on feminine rule. Noting how the playwright was interested in Margaret as both a queen and a woman, Lee observes the character’s strength and ambition from the beginning of 2H6, while also pointing out her “signs of weakness for she lacks the true qualities of royalty”: see, for example, her jealousy of Eleanor, her adultery, and her all-consuming desire for revenge after the death of Suffolk. As the play draws to an end, Margaret grows more malign and evil in her promotion of contention over tranquillity; finally, she perverts the patriarchal order by usurping Henry’s place as both husband and sovereign. To have depicted such a negative view of queenship while a queen occupied the throne of England would seem to have been a risky endeavor on Shakespeare’s part, but because Elizabeth I had successfully “turn[ed] her femininity to positive purposes” in a careful construction of androgynous power, thereby reversing the dark images associated with female rule, Shakespeare’s depiction of Queen Margaret and her illegitimate queenship posed no practical threat to either Elizabeth or the playwright.
Levine, Nina. Women’s Matters: Politics, Gender, and Nation in Shakespeare’s Early History Plays. Newark: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1998. (Chapter 2 reprints with revisions Levine’s essay “The Case of Eleanor Cobham: Authorizing History in 2 Henry VI,” Shakespeare Studies 22 : 104–21.)
While Shakespeare’s early histories (1, 2, and 3H6, R3, and John) rewrite the Tudor chronicle record so as to acknowledge the importance of women in ensuring patrilineal succession, Levine contends that they also “generate a critique of patrilineal inheritance and legitimacy” that speaks to the Elizabethan present in which the plays are “situated.” The author is especially interested in how the H6 trilogy uses political contexts—“both on- and offstage”—to frame and qualify negative stereotypes of women. In chapter 2, “Dangerous Practices: Making History in 2 Henry VI” (pp. 47–67), Levine focuses on Eleanor Cobham to argue that contrary to the stereotypical “virago-witch-traitor,” Shakespeare’s Eleanor is “double-voiced”: she is both the aggressor in thinking treasonous thoughts and consorting with necromancers and the victim of political entrapment. To see her only in the negative terms of Buckingham’s assessment (2.1.178–89) is to miss Shakespeare’s version of her crime, which attends to “the complex politics underwriting” Eleanor’s activities and punishment. Levine attributes Shakespeare’s probative rather than polemical characterization to John Foxe’s account of the episode in the 1570 edition of Acts and Monuments, a book that served as both source and context for Shakespeare’s duchess. Whereas Yorkist writers consistently vilified Eleanor and Tudor chroniclers such as Hall and Holinshed presented contradictory “facts” from which the reader could choose, Foxe defended her, conjecturing that she may have been set up by those out to advance their own agendas against the king. To support the claim that Shakespeare provides a theatrical version of Foxe’s interrogation of the chronicle accounts, Levine notes (1) the use of framing soliloquies by York (1.1.223–71) and Hume (1.2.90–110) that portray Eleanor as an unwitting pawn, and (2) the casting of Eleanor as a passive observer in the actual conjuring scene (1.4). Furthermore, 2H6’s depiction of Eleanor “contests the authority of the patriarchal narrative”: instead of preserving the state, the duchess’s “ ‘containment’ [her trial and punishment] ironically . . . contributes to its ruin”—the “good Duke Humphrey” (1.1.170) is murdered; York advances his own absolutist agenda; and social rebellion ensues with Jack Cade. By creating a “double-voiced” Eleanor, Shakespeare “opens up . . . the political faultlines in this gendered story, inviting consideration of the conflicts and contradictions at work in representations of power, both past and present.”
In a subsequent chapter, “Ruling Women and the Politics of Gender in 2 and 3 Henry VI” (pp. 68–96), Levine brings Tudor chronicle accounts of Queen Margaret and sixteenth-century debates over female rule to bear on her discussion of the role of Margaret in Part 2 (pp. 79–87). Unlike his chronicle sources, Shakespeare’s depiction of the queen interrogates “gendered attacks on women rulers and calls instead for a political ethos based on the nation’s welfare.” As Levine argues, Shakespeare encourages censure of Margaret not because of her gender but because she, “like York and Cade, abuses the common people and the nation’s laws.” By the end of the play, Shakespeare further qualifies 2H6’s depiction of female misrule by allowing at least a temporary place for women in politics. Fighting to keep the crown in the Lancastrian hands of her husband and son (5.2.73–84), Margaret “emerges as a courageous and pragmatic leader,” her boldness assuming a heroic quality as her politics moves toward the center in contrast to York’s “tyrannical absolutism.” Throughout the dramatic action, the spectacle of her misrule may invoke anxieties about ruling women, but concerns for the commonwealth—a rationale deployed in early defenses of Elizabeth’s monarchy—“supersede . . . gender as the principal criterion for assessing her rule.”
Patterson, Annabel. “The Peasant’s Toe: Popular Culture and Popular Pressure.” In Shakespeare and the Popular Voice, pp. 32–51. Cambridge, Mass.: Basil Blackwell, 1989.
In her study of Shakespeare’s social assumptions and treatment of popular resistance, Patterson contends that a fresh interpretation of 2H6 would start not with Jack Cade but with the “formal act of ventriloquism” performed by Salisbury, who, after the murder of “good Duke Humphrey” (1.1.170), repeatedly uses the phrase “they say” to inform the king of the people’s conviction about Suffolk’s treachery against them (3.2.251–78). In the course of his speech—one of crucial importance for Shakespeare’s conception of the popular voice—Salisbury emerges as the people’s spokesman and their true advocate (as Duke Humphrey had been before him). Patterson finds in the people’s success against their enemy Suffolk “conditional approval” of popular protest—“conditional, that is, on rightful motives, a basic loyalty to the crown, and a proper spokesman.” As for the notorious Jack Cade, he “fails every test for” such a spokesman. Because York’s scheme to use Cade as a surrogate precedes the Salisbury intervention—the order is reversed in the historical sources—Shakespeare’s Cade enters the dramatic action (4.2) as an “impostor aristocrat and a traitor to his class,” everything he says “already suspect.” In Cade’s attack on literacy (4.7.31–46), followed by Lord Saye’s “salaried version of liberal humanism” (4.7.71–76), Patterson finds an example of “double ventriloquism”: “the voice of popular protest speaking through [an insincere Cade] speaking through Shakespeare’s playtext.” As further evidence of Shakespeare’s efforts to dramatize different styles of populism, the author points to the scene involving John Holland and Bevis on Blackheath (4.2.10–21); by introducing the criterion of labor as a test of social values, the two minor characters, “free of . . . cynicism . . . and natural in their echoes of the tropes of popular protest,” demonstrate “beyond a shadow of a doubt that the real popular consciousness, as distinct from the impostor, is capable of penetrating hegemony’s aphorisms.” In contrast to Helgerson (above) and Wilson (below), Patterson concludes that there is nothing in 2H6 “that can justify its use as the court of last appeal in a claim for Shakespeare’s conservatism.”
Pearlman, E. “The Duke and the Beggar in Shakespeare’s 2 Henry VI.” Criticism 41 (1999): 309–21.
Pearlman observes that the “innovative” scene in which a beggar’s “miracle” is exposed as a sham (2.1) warrants more scholarly interest than it has received. With its color, bustle, and humor, the St. Albans episode performs several functions: (1) it adds welcome tonal variety to a plot dominated by factious wrangling; (2) it reinforces themes relating to issues of perception and (as one of several dramatized conflicts between rich and poor) social class; and (3) it clarifies and deepens the character of Duke Humphrey. Even more significant, however, may be the scene’s theological implications for the period’s religious conflicts. Finding the story not in the chronicles of Edward Hall or Raphael Holinshed but in John Foxe’s polemical Acts and Monuments, Shakespeare would have recognized its relevance to contemporary debates on miracles (associated with the Catholic Church) that pitted the old faith against the new faith of the Church of England, which regarded miracles as “smack[ing] of pre-Reformation ignorance.” In his praise of the duke for trying “to reforme that which was amisse,” Foxe uses the non-neutral “reforme” as a clue “that at the heart of the episode is an implicit conflict between the old and the reformed religion.” But as Pearlman demonstrates, to read the encounter in the play as simply a case of “Protestant debunking of Catholic magic” is to miss its potential for evoking a more complicated response from its Elizabethan audience. In turning to Foxe for the story, Shakespeare would have come upon a tantalizingly brief mention of Foxe’s own sources: Thomas More and William Tyndale, two warring polemicists in the first decade of the English Reformation with diametrically opposed interpretations of the sham miracle. Whether or not Shakespeare traced the genesis of Foxe’s tale thoroughly, he certainly would have known that the story was subject to different readings and, consequently, of topical value. Shakespeare, of course, may simply have “appropriated the story of the duke and beggar for sheer delight in its craft. And if so colorful a conversation happened to carry doctrinal implications that raised hackles on both sides of the aisle, why then, so much the better.”
Pendleton, Thomas A., ed. Henry VI: Critical Essays. Shakespeare Criticism. New York: Routledge, 2001.
The volume’s fourteen original essays include two that focus solely on 2H6: Maurice Hunt’s “Climbing for Place in Shakespeare’s 2 Henry VI” (pp. 157–76) and M. Rick Smith’s “Henry VI, Part 2: Commodifying and Recommodifying the Past in Late-Medieval and Early-Modern England” (pp. 177–204). Hunt discusses the motif of social climbing in the play as it relates to political and social disorder and suggests that it “may amount to Shakespeare’s response to Marlowe’s latent intermittent admiration for the ‘overreacher.’ ” Focusing on Humphrey of Gloucester and Cade, Smith examines Shakespeare’s theatrical treatment of commodified historical narratives in the context of sixteenth-century cultural commercialization. Several essays deal in part with 2H6: Steven Urkowitz’s “Texts with Two Faces: Noticing Theatrical Revisions in Henry VI, Parts 2 and 3” (pp. 27–37), Harry Keyishian’s “The Progress of Revenge in the first Henriad” (pp. 67–77), Naomi C. Liebler and Lisa Scancella Shea’s “Shakespeare’s Queen Margaret: Unruly or Unruled?” (pp. 79–96), Nina da Vinci Nichols’s “The Paper Trail to the Throne” (pp. 97–112), Frances K. Barasch’s “Folk Magic in HVI, Parts 1 and 2: Two Scenes of Embedding” (pp. 113–25), Yoshio Arai’s essay on the H6 trilogy in Japan (pp. 57–66), and Irene Dash’s “Henry VI and the Art of Illustration” (pp. 253–71). The volume also contains several essays on performance: Thomas A. Pendleton’s “Talking with York: A Conversation with Steven Skybell” (Duke of York in Karin Coonrod’s production) (pp. 219–34), H. R. Coursen’s “Theme and Design in Recent Productions of Henry VI” (with the emphasis on Michael Kahn’s and Karin Coonrod’s revivals in 1996) (pp. 205–18), and Patricia Lennox’s “Henry VI: A Television History in Four Parts” (Peter Dews’s An Age of Kings in 1960, Peter Hall and John Barton’s Wars of the Roses in 1965, Jane Howell’s BBC revival in 1983, and Michael Bogdanov and Michael Pennington’s Wars of the Roses in 1988) (pp. 235–52). Pendleton’s introduction provides an overview of the scholarship, especially as it relates to issues of text, authorship, date, sequence, relationship of the plays as parts of a tetralogy, and critical assessment. Much attention is paid to the providentialist views of Tillyard (Shakespeare’s History Plays, 1944), who has served “both as stimulant and irritant” and thus “has had an enormous effect” on the criticism of the H6 trilogy. The past fifty years have seen scholarly interest move beyond questions of text and authorship; as a result, the three parts of H6 are now discussed and appreciated more than at any time since they were first performed.
Rackin, Phyllis. “Historical Kings/Theatrical Clowns.” In Stages of History: Shakespeare’s English Chronicles, pp. 201–47. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990.
Rackin devotes the first half of chapter 5 to 2H6 (pp. 207–22), focusing specifically on the representation of Jack Cade’s rebellion. Noting that Renaissance historiography was both an aristocratic and masculine enterprise, she examines the “discursive position” commoners shared with women in the plays. “Silenced and marginalized” by the historiographic record, both groups in Shakespeare present “a constant challenge to the mystifications” of patriarchal history. For all the similarities, however, one major difference emerges in their respective stagings. Played by male actors, speaking lines by a male playwright, Shakespeare’s female characters appear as “instruments of male ventriloquism.” The commoners, on the other hand, played by actors occupying the same social position, and delivering lines written by a commoner, “spoke with their own voices and appeared in their own bodies.” Because of this material connection between role and actor, scenes like those involving Cade and his followers constituted a potential moment of danger for the patriarchal establishment: as the rebellion’s “licensed disorder of fictional theatrical representation . . . invade[d] the actual world of the audience,” the actors threatened to produce in real time what they were portraying in fictional time. Observing how similar scenes of rebellion in Sir Thomas More were censored, Rackin conjectures that 2H6’s uprising passed the censor’s test because it seems “designed to justify oppression”: “Dissident sentiments are first evoked, then discredited and demonized as sources of anxiety, and finally defused in comic ridicule and brutal comic violence.” Even though contained, the subversive energies of the popular voice in 2H6 are not completely effaced, Rackin contends. When Cade dies at the hands of Iden, the rebel’s last words point not to patriarchal order or the chivalric code of martial valor as the cause of his defeat but to the urgent materiality of his physical hunger.
Riggs, David. “The Hero in History: A Reading of Henry VI.” In Shakespeare’s Heroical Histories: Henry VI and Its Literary Tradition, pp. 93–139. London: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Riggs’s analysis of the three parts of H6 within the context of exemplary history and heroic drama (as defined by Marlowe’s Tamburlaine) leads him to conclude that the trilogy is crucial to Shakespeare’s developing conception of the history play as a dialectic between heroic ideals and ethical and political realities. In his anti-Tillyardian reading, the H6 plays become “an extended meditation on the decline of heroic idealism between the Hundred Years War and the Yorkist accession.” What makes 2H6 (discussed on pp. 113–27) so innovative as a history play—and for many the best of the H6 trilogy—is not only more localized settings (the battlefields of France in Part 1 give way to the “public halls and inmost recesses of the English court”) but also an “elaboration of social details” and a variety of action. The play’s portrayal of a weak king, “flanked by a loyal counselor and a set of courtly ‘caterpillars’ ” and faced with open revolt from disaffected nobles, “marks the line of development that leads from” the exotic world of Tamburlaine and Selimus to such plays as Woodstock, Edward II, and R2—dramas of “ambition and disruption that anatomize the ambivalent status of the Elizabethan peerage.” With the murder of the judicious Gloucester (3.2), the play’s dynamic changes as Suffolk and York, “drastically reduced in stature” in the first half of the play, go on to enjoy in the final acts “a renewed vitality”: the former as “an idealized and gracious amorist,” the latter “as a visible embodiment of heroic authority.” By urging York’s claim to the throne on the basis of his natural right rather than his ancestry (5.1.5–9, 97–106), and by setting Cade’s revolt “within a continuous parody of the conventional formulas for heroic self-assertion,” Shakespeare reformulates the idiom and topics of Tamburlaine to create a new type of history play.
Saccio, Peter. “Henry VI and Edward IV: The Rival Kings.” In Shakespeare’s English Kings: History, Chronicle, and Drama, pp. 115–55. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Having devoted an entire chapter to 1H6, Saccio turns to Parts 2 and 3 in chapter 6. The author discusses 2H6 under the headings “The Disorders of the 1440s” and “The Fortunes of the Duke of York,” reserving the final section, “Edward IV, 1461–1471,” for 3H6. Unlike the radical rearrangement of chronology found in Part 1, the second and third parts of the trilogy extensively exaggerate the historical record, especially with respect to the peasants’ rebellion (risings of the commons were exceptional) and the Wars of the Roses—really nothing more than “a skirmish in 1455 (first St. Albans), six battles in 1459–1461, and three . . . in 1469–1471.” To read Parts 2 and 3 is to see the period as one of ceaseless turbulence, with widespread devastation in the land, a vision of mid-fifteenth-century England “born largely of [Tudor] propaganda,” which Shakespeare “converts . . . into eloquence.” Among Shakespeare’s specific departures from his historical sources in 2H6, which covers the years 1445 to 1455, are the following: the rivalry between Eleanor of Cobham and Queen Margaret (good from a dramatic perspective but historically inaccurate, since Eleanor’s downfall occurred four years before Margaret arrived in England), the emphasis on Gloucester’s opponents in contriving to bring Eleanor down, the image of “good Duke Humphrey” (the historical figure was just as headstrong as his fellow magnates “and more pugnacious than most”), the active role of Cardinal Beaufort in hatching malign schemes (by the early 1440s, the Cardinal was no longer actively involved in government matters), the planned murder of Gloucester (who probably died of natural causes), the love affair between Suffolk and Margaret (a Shakespearean invention “based upon a mere hint in the Tudor chronicles”), the treatment of Cade’s following as a “rabblement” (the men were actually a “reasonably well-organized group of artisans and gentry who made the standard requests of most middle- and upper-class medieval rebels”), and the “sheer invention” of the future Richard III (only two years old in 1455) as a young man actively engaged in the first battle of St. Albans. Although Shakespeare tightens the narrative sequence of events, the only major unhistorical element in the first four acts involves “an overhasty anticipation of [York’s] career in the next decade.” Shakespeare’s compression of events leading up to the first battle of St. Albans, with which Part 2 concludes, results in the omission of several of York’s military/political reversals, his first protectorate, and King Henry’s insanity from August 1453 until December 1454.
Wilson, Richard. “ ‘A Mingled Yarn’: Shakespeare and the Cloth Workers.” Literature and History 12 (1986): 164–80. (Reprinted in Richard Wilson, Will Power: Essays on Shakespearean Authority, pp. 22–44 [Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993]; also reprinted in Shakespeare’s History Plays [Longman Critical Readers], edited by R. J. C. Watt, pp. 40–60 [London: Longman-Pearson Education, 2002].)
Wilson disputes the modern assessment of Shakespeare’s mob episodes as demonstrating universal imperatives of law and order. On the contrary, there is nothing in the Shakespeare canon that is “more entangled with the exigencies of [the playwright’s] own time and place” than his crowd scenes, which belong “to the period of the emergence of the city mob as a force to be reckoned with in English politics.” In Shakespeare’s treatment of the Cade uprising, a “blueprint” for the playwright’s subsequent crowd scenes, Wilson finds an instance of the “brazen manipulation of documentary records practised to buttress the regime.” Although Shakespeare found the actual 1450 rebellion in Edward Hall’s 1548 Union (a chronicle glorification of Tudor rule), he chose to darken the historical Cade even further. Hall’s Cade—a man who prohibited his followers from engaging in murder, robbery, or rape, and whose advisers were schoolmasters—is “metamorphosed” in 2H6 into a “cruel, barbaric lout, whose slogan is ‘kill and knock down.’ ” By casting Cade as the enemy of literacy in general and of the law in particular, Shakespeare used this early play to show his scorn for popular/oral culture and to identify himself with an urban elite, who saw authority as belonging solely to the literate. Instead of viewing Cade as a universal embodiment of anarchy, Wilson relates the defamation of the character to a specific confrontation between prison officials and feltmakers who had gathered in 1592 to stage a play outside Marshalsea Prison. At a time when the London clothing workers were fighting a “rear-guard action against long-term structural changes in their industry,” the author finds it no accident that Shakespeare (who, documents show, had a financial stake in these capitalist developments) switched the occupation of Cade’s rioters from medieval peasants to Renaissance artisans, with Cade a shearman and many of his lieutenants weavers. Shakespeare’s treatment of Cade and his followers reveals the playwright “not as the universal genius, but as a locus of contingent intentions and desires.” Neither the playwright nor the commercial theater for which he wrote was sympathetic to popular protest. In fact, the Cade scenes illustrate Shakespeare’s “revulsion” at the voice of the people.