2. Henry VI: Part II
Yes, you have read that correctly! My play for this week is Henry VI Part II, believed to have been written before both Part I (surprisingly) and Part III (less surprisingly) in around 1591. As such, it marks Shakespeare’s first foray into writing plays based on English History.
I’m not going to lie; it wasn’t the easiest or most compelling of reads. Structurally it is a very bitty play with lots going on in various different plots with little to really ground the action. Fundamentally, it can be broken into three sections: Acts 1-3 see the arrival of Margaret as Queen and the general jostling for power and influence amongst her and the prominent noblemen at the court of Henry VI, during this Gloucester (Lord Protector and Uncle to the King) is murdered as part of a plot to remove him from power; Act 4 focusses on a popular rebellion led by Jack Cade, with the commons marching up from Kent to London; Act 5 switches to the outbreak of civil war, as York stakes his first forceful claim to the throne.
As you can see already, it’s not the clearest to follow and there is little flow between the different phases of the story. If I was in conversation with a modern writer about this, I’d be advising them to narrow the focus, pick one area and go really deep into that. The breadth and variety of action portrayed does present a challenge to the modern theatre-maker, not least because you end up with all these noblemen that have a tendency to blend into each other (Suffolk, Somerset, Salisbury…). It seems clear to me that the play was written assuming quite a lot of prior knowledge on the part of the audience – knowledge that relatively few audiences will bring to the auditorium today.
One of the other challenges the play presents, is that the second half is dominated by battle scenes. The action jumps from one part of the conflict to another. In this way, it actually lends itself more to TV and film than to the stage. So, I’m not surprised that when the BBC tackled the three parts of Henry VI in their Hollow Crown series, I remember thinking it was quite effective. Even the earlier, more intrigue-focussed, sections lend themselves quite well to film, where it’s easy to create a mood of claustrophobia, closeness and suspicion.
Having said all this, the play does have its moments and does raise some really interesting themes and questions. Henry VI is drawn as a very pious and kindly King but one who is a completely ineffectual leader. It’s a very powerful and resonant example of the chaos that can ensue when a nation is stuck with the wrong leader at the wrong time (*ahem ahem*). Essentially, in the absence of any strong leadership, everyone just takes matters into their own hands – plotting and rebelling at will.
Similarly, the popular uprising, led by Jack Cade, feels rich in contemporary resonance. Cade whips up a storm amongst the common people, striking out against anyone of any learning, education or rank. As he and his fellow rebels storm London with plans to execute all those who can read and write, pull down all the seats of authority and burn all the statutes of law, I couldn’t help being reminded of recent events in America. It also brought to my mind the current push back against experts and those with education, as if they are all involved in some conspiracy against the common people. So, there is a lot of rich material here for the modern director. The problem is that it is all crammed into one very choppy and confused Act.
Ultimately, you can tell this is an early Shakespeare and a play that he almost certainly didn’t have sole authorship over. There are glimmers of the Shakespearean eloquence that we know from his later work, but it is not fully realised, and it is lost in the unclear and jumbled structure. I can fully understand why most modern productions look at the Henry VI trilogy as a whole and look at ways to merge them into one (or two) Wars of the Roses plays. There’s good stuff in there but it takes a lot of dramaturgy to make the play work for a modern audience.