Stuff that Happens
Stuff that Happens Before the Play
- Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of York, leads a civil war against his cousin King Henry VI.
- Supporters of the House of York wear the symbol of the white rose; supporters of Henry’s House of Lancaster wear the red rose.
- England’s Wars of the Roses continues . . .
STUFF THAT HAPPENS DURING THE PLAY
- After winning the Battle of St. Albans, the Earl of Warwick urges York to take the English throne. King Henry arrives and offers for York to succeed him as king. York agrees. Queen Margaret is outraged that Henry has disinherited their son, Prince Edward.
- Two of York’s sons, Edward and Richard, urge their father to seize the crown immediately. They resume the war against Henry.
- Clifford, avenging his father’s death, murders York’s son Rutland.
- Margaret and Clifford capture and murder York.
- Richard fights Clifford to avenge his father and brother.
- Edward takes the throne and becomes King Edward IV. He names his surviving brothers Duke of Clarence, and Duke of Gloucester.
- Warwick leaves for France to arrange King Edward’s marriage to Lady Bona, the King of France’s sister-in-law.
- Margaret also leaves for France to seek help from the French king.
- Henry is captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London.
- Meanwhile, Edward decides to marry Lady Elizabeth Grey instead of Lady Bona.
- In France, Warwick learns of King Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth. Humiliated, Warwick switches sides and offers his daughter Anne to Prince Edward (Margaret and Henry’s son).
- Richard reveals his true ambitions and intentions.
- The game of thrones ensues.
Dr. Ralph's Brief
1. When was the play first performed?
It must have been before 1592, when a pamphlet by Robert Greene, a rival playwright, bitterly paraphrases a line from the play and calls Shakespeare “a Tiger’s heart wrapt in a Player’s hide.”
2. Where was the play first performed?
Probably at the Theatre in Shoreditch (north of the city wall) by Shakespeare’s company, then Pembroke’s Men.
3. How does the play fit into Shakespeare’s career?
This play, among Shakespeare’s first, is part of his first “tetralogy,” a set of four plays dealing with the historical period from young King Henry VI’s reign through the death of King Richard III, who will here become a major character.
4. How is this play like Shakespeare’s other plays?
Like the other early histories it is packed with action, overtly drawn characters, flamboyantly decorative verse, and strong dramatic irony. On display is Shakespeare’s usual taste for paradox and contradiction.
5. How is this play unlike other Shakespeare plays?
All of the Henry VI plays are different from Shakespeare’s other plays because the major protagonists shifts each time one of them dies in the packed storyline. It falls to the weak king and his ferocious wife Margaret to provide continuity.
6. What do scholars think about this play?
Most think it is the best of the trilogy of Henry VI plays. Here we see Queen Margaret in full throat, and here Richard “Crookback” emerges in Technicolor verse – “Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile.”
7. Is there any controversy surrounding the work?
No. Greene’s snide remark (see #1 above) seems to confirm Shakespeare’s sole authorship.
8. What characters should I especially look out for?
Queen Margaret and Richard, Duke of Gloucester (future King Richard III), but you won’t need to look for them; they will be no harder to find than the Wicked Witch of the West or the Joker.
9. What scene should I especially look for?
The play is chock full of great scenes, but two of the most memorable scenes are at the beginning of the play: the “Molehill Scene” in Act One, scene four, where Margaret torments the Duke of York; and Act Two, scene five, in which the miserable King Henry watches the war being waged in his name.
10. What is the language like?
Lots of chewy speeches, playful rhetoric, and black humor.