The Saga of a Civil War

Henry VI (Parts I, II and III) - Sylvan Barnet, Arthur Freeman, Milton Crane, Lawrence V. Ryan, William Shakespeare

The problem with dating these plays is that they were originally written separately though the plays Henry VI Part 2 and Henry VI Part 3 were most likely written together, whereas the first play seems to have been written later, like a prelude as opposed to the first part of a trilogy. In fact, if the plays were to be viewed as a trilogy it would more likely be the parts two, three, and Richard III. It is also noticeable that the plays based on the earlier kings were also written at a later date, so it seems that Shakespeare may have decided that he wanted to flesh out this particular period beginning with the coup that was staged against Richard II. The reason that I say this is because early in the second play, the Yorkists justify their revolt by outlining how they are descendants of Richard II and that the Lancasters were the descendants of Henry Bollingbroke, who then went on to become Henry IV, thus making the Lancastrian dynasty an illegitimate dynasty and that the Yorkist dynasty, which was connected to the Plantagenets, the legitimate one. It is also interesting that he also wrote a play based around King John (though the Magna Carta does not make mention in this play) which makes me wonder if he intended to create a Chronicle of the Kings of England from King John right up to the defeat of King Richard. However it appears that he did not pursue this goal, as monumental as it would have been.


In this commentary I wanted to look at the trilogy as a whole rather than the separate plays, but after coming to the end of the third play I am convinced that the trilogy is not actually the three Henry plays, but rather a prequel which fleshes out the events in the later plays, most likely to give more substance and background to the reasons why the Lancasters and the Yorks went to war with each other. We note that in the first play there is a scene in the garden where the Yorkists pick a red rose signalling the seed from which the rebellion would sprout, and we also see the events that heralded England losing her French possessions, another thing that is flagged in the third play, as there is a debate as to whether Henry was responsible for the loss, or rather the regent. As previously mentioned, the entire cycle begins with Richard II and finishes at Richard III.


It is clear from these plays that Henry is portrayed as a pious, but a weak, king, whose authority is challenged throughout. In the first play he is a child meaning that the kingdom is ruled by a regent, and the first play ends with his marriage to Margaret, who then persuades him to cut the regent lose, not to reign in his own stead, but so she can then take over running the kingdom. In fact we see in a number of places that it is Margaret who is the power rather than the king himself. They say that behind every great man there is an equally great women, however in this particular instance we do not see a great man, which if this holds true, puts a rather nasty stain upon the character of Margaret. This can be justified though since early in the third play we have the King seeking a peace with the Yorks however Margaret steps in and overrides him, sending the country back into war. In fact, it is the act of her beheading the Duke of York that sets the country on the path of no return. This is not surprising since such actions tend to inflame the allies of the executed to the point where peace is no longer an option and vengeance reigns.


The question that is raised is whether this is a tragedy, and while we consider that the first play may not be, when considered in conjunction with the others, the tragic nature of the characters begins to come to fore. I have already mentioned the actions of Margaret which destroys the peace and seals Henry's fate, however when we look forward to Richard III we also see how even victory in civil war need not bring about peace and prosperity. In a way a precedent has been set when the Yorks rebelled against the Lancasters. Once a king has been executed there is no longer a rule of law, nor is there a rule of the divine right of kings. The king is no longer protected by his position, and thus a king that murders his way into power opens himself up to being murdered himself.


Richard is the case in point, and we see more of his character come out in the final play when he puts himself into the position of tyrant only to be killed himself. Remember, in Shakespeare's time these events were still quite recent, in fact one could consider these events to the audience in Shakespeare's time to be similar to World War I in our time. In a way even the Napoleonic Wars are still recent, though the events of the 20th century are still very much before us as there are still many alive who remember Hitler rampaging across Europe. In the same way that after World War II we all said that we did not want that happening again, one could also see that the people of England did not want to return to civil war. Civilisation had collapsed, there was no rule of law, and people did as they saw fit. I guess the civil war was destined to happen due to England losing all of her possessions in France. We have seen similar things happen in recent history as the loss of face in a war tends to bring about the collapse of a tyranny. Germany lost face in World War I and that resulted in a revolution, and similarly Russia lost face in World War I which brought about a period of instability. However, as technology has developed, the staying power of a tyrant has also strengthened as when Sadam lost face in the first Gulf War, he was able to maintain his grip on power.


It has been suggested that these plays were written and performed around the time that a plot was laid to attempt to remove Queen Elizabeth. Elizabeth was actually quite a strong ruler, she needed to be as not only was she facing threats from outside of England due to her position in regards to maintaining the reformation, but no doubt there were elements within England that did not believe that a woman should rule. What I gather is that these plays serve as a warning to rebels in that a rebellion does not necessarily bring about peace and prosperity. The rebellion against the Lancasters did not do that, and in fact it brought about even greater tyranny and oppression in the form of Richard III.


We must remember that when somebody seizes the throne by force the first thing that must be done is to secure his position, which means disposing of all of his enemies. This generally results in a bucket load of murders. We see this happen in other plays of Shakespeare, most notably Macbeth. In a way the act of murdering enemies, both actual and perceived, has the effect of corrupting the tyrant even further, and as we see in Macbeth. Even killing women and children ended up not affecting him. However, enemies are like weeds, they can never truly be removed. We see this today with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite whatever nobility may be considered regarding the wars, the fact that enemies are not always in the open makes finding them quite difficult, and the more enemies that you hunt out and punish the more enemies you create. It is true especially when you go after perceived enemies since even if they, or their friends and families, were not enemies, they will quickly become enemies when you raise your hand against them.