Richard Nisley

Come for the language, stay for the story
History - World Released - Sep 21, 2014

Over the summer I read a number of Shakespeare’s plays including three that are seldom performed today. All three involve the reign of England’s King Henry VI. Why these three? Probably because they are not popular. Are they worthwhile? Absolutely. Below are three reviews I wrote for

1 Henry VI - “How Not to Rule a Kingdom”

This is a play about leadership, or rather the lack of it. Written early in William Shakespeare’s career, the three parts of Henry VI chronicle the bad leadership of England under Henry VI and the civil War that resulted (a.k.a. the Wars of the Roses).

In “1 Henry VI,” Henry is a mere boy but already king. England is at war with France over territorial rights, while the Dukes, Earls, and Lords that comprise the King’s court are bitterly divided. Characters of principle, such as Talbot and Gloucester, are blissfully unaware of the poisonous politics that threaten the kingdom. Those aware of the threat, such as Plantagenet and Suffock, are without principle and supplying much of the poison. Caught in the middle, young King Henry has no support in his own court. Worse, he is without a father or mentor to train him in the art of leadership.

With the English court divided, the French regain many of their cities including Rouen, under the able military leadership of Joan of Arc (in Shakespeare’s play, Joan is a harlot and witch, as the English viewed her at the time). Lord Talbot mounts a counterattack to retake Rouen but is trapped by superior forces while attempting to capture Bordeaux. Back in London, the quarreling Dukes are pushing the kingdom toward civil war. Preoccupied as they are, fresh troops are not sent abroad, the English are defeated at Bordeaux, and Talbot is slain. In another battle, the English capture Joan of Arc and Margaret of Anjou. Joan is condemned to death at the stake while Margaret is groomed to marry Henry VI as part of settlement that ends the war with France. As the play ends, the Wars of the Roses is poised to begin.

1 Henry VI is a cautionary tale of how bad leadership can lead to a nation’s undoing. In the end, it’s the English people who suffer most. To quote William Baldwin in “A Mirror for Magistrates” (1559), “The goodness or badness of any realm lieth in the goodness or badness of the rulers.” For more, read Janus Lull’s insightful introduction. The play itself makes for an easy and entertaining read, accomplished in a single 90-minute sitting.

2 Henry VI - “First thing we do let’s kill all the lawyers”

It’s a bad omen when the good Duke of Gloucester (and Henry VI’s one true friend), speaks out against the king’s marriage to Margaret of Anjou--because she has brought no dowry--only to discover the other nobles, instead of supporting him, plot to use his words in turning the king against him. Gloucester is arrested and imprisoned for high treason while the king does nothing. When Gloucester in murdered, Henry expresses regret and still does nothing.

Such is the state of England under pathetic King Henry VI. Henry is seeking a life of tranquility, and hopes the problems of his kingdom will somehow go away. His wife Margaret, on the other hand, is a tigress prepared to fight for her husband’s realm, even if he won’t.

The conniving Duke of York, meanwhile, is plotting to displace Henry and make himself king on the basis of some obscure genealogical claim. He has supporters within the court but needs an army. He gets an army when he is asked to put down an uprising in Ireland (is that convenient or what?). Before departing, he encourages a commoner name Jack Cade to incite a rebellion as a means of destabilizing the government. Cade’s ragtag army gets as far as London before being stopped, but until one of Cade’s lieutenants utters one of Shakespeare’s immortal lines: “First thing we do let’s kill all the lawyers.”

Having put down the Irish rebellion, York returns triumphant, declares he is the true king, and the Wars of the Roses begins in earnest: Henry, Margaret, Lord Clifford and the Duke of Somerset for the House of Lancaster; York and his sons, and the Earls of Warwick and Salisbury for the House of York. The Yorkists win the battle of St. Albans where Clifford and Somerset are slain, but the battle for the English crown has only just begun.

Despite a decided lack of heroes, 2 Henry VI has a swashbuckling air about it that makes for a compelling read. The Irish dramatist Sean O’Casey described the Henry VI trilogy as “Battles, castles, and marching armies; kings, queens, knights and esquires in robes today and in armor tomorrow, shouting their soldiers to attack, or saying a last lone word before poor life gave out; of mighty men of valor joining this king and ravaging that one; of a king gaining a crown and a king losing it; of kings and knights rushing on their foes and of kings and captains flying from them.” Indeed, read for the language while being entertained by the story.

3 Henry VI - “Why Nice Guys Finish Last”

“3 Henry VI” continues Shakespeare’s cautionary tale of bad leadership under hapless and naive Henry VI. If ever there was an example of why nice guys finish last this is it. Henry is pious and learned, but blind to the poisonous intrigues that are dragging his country into civil war. While his wife and son (Queen Margaret and Prince Edward) lead an army into battle, “bashful Henry” withdraws into his mind, where he imagines the bloody civil war to be little more than the contention of wind and sea, full of sound and fury without consequence. Thereafter, he becomes a looker-on rather than a participant in the conflict between the Houses of Lancaster and York. Indeed, he attributes events to chance, fortune, and the will of god, and not to his own failure to take matters into his own hands and rid England of the madly ambitious Yorkists. Indeed, Henry sees himself more as shepherd tending his flock than as king with powers to reorder kingdom.

The story begins where “2 Henry VI” concluded. After his army is defeated at the Battle of St. Albans, Henry makes a deal that will keep him on the throne and his enemy--the treacherous Duke of York--next in line to be king. Queen Margaret, who possesses the fortitude Henry lacks, is furious, because it means their son Edward, the Prince of Wales, will be denied succession. She leads an army that defeats Yorkist forces and slays the Duke.

The Duke has three sons, one of whom is the even-more treacherous Duke of Gloucester (and the future Richard III). Another battle is waged and this time the Yorkists win. Richard’s older brother, Edward, becomes king, and Henry is imprisoned in the Tower of London. Margaret is banished to France. While there, she raises an army with help of the French king, returns to England and deposes Edward. Edward and his brothers escape, gather up new forces and retake the crown. Henry is arrested and returned to the Tower, while Margaret and her son the Prince of Wales resume the fight but are defeated at Tewkesbury. Richard kills both the Prince and King Henry, while plotting his own bloody ascent to the throne, which will entail the death of his two brothers. “I can add colors to the chameleon, / Change shapes with Proteus for advantage, / And set the murderous Machiavel to school. / Can I do this, and cannot get a crown? / Tut, were it farther off, I’ll pluck it down.”

“3 Henry VI” is perhaps the best and certainly the bloodiest of the three Henry VI plays. Don’t be squeamish: read all three and revel in “battles, castles, and marching armies; kings, queens, knights and esquires in robes today and in armor tomorrow . . .” (Sean O’Casey). Then proceed to “Richard III” for more of “this sun of York.”

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