For the past several months, our theatre has been filled with the sound of words that are about 425 years old as our company worked to rehearse and perform all three parts of Henry VI. I have looked on with admiration as the director, Jeff Watkins, and the cast worked ever diligently, filling the building with the sounds of their efforts. York’s railings against the crown greeted me as I came to work and Henry’s lamentations reverberated around me as I left. Trumpets sounded every morning and swords clashed every afternoon as fight choreographers created battles and actors practiced them. And more than once, when I waited for a battle to finish so I could walk through the theatre, I pondered why these plays, sometimes criticized, often overlooked, and rarely performed, are still so compelling after four centuries.
We all know that Shakespeare grew into one of the greatest dramatists the world has ever seen, and so it is fascinating to look on the three parts of Henry VI, the earliest history plays he wrote, and see glimpses of rhetorical features that became staples of his later, more famous historical plays, like the two parts of Henry IV and Henry V. As he did in writing his other history plays, Shakespeare relied heavily on source materials like the historical chronicles written by Hall and Holinshed while crafting the three parts of Henry VI. However, he showed his inclination to deviate from his sources and the historical narrative, making alterations that condensed great swaths of English history into plays that could be performed in three hours and making changes to historical fact to create more emotionally moving scenes and more compelling characters.
Through the conversation between Talbot and his son before they die in Part One, the moment Suffolk and Margaret share before he leaves England in Part Two, and the time Henry muses on his longing for a simpler life in Part Three, Shakespeare demonstrated his gift for creating deeply moving, if historically unfounded, scenes. Through the depictions of pious Henry, ambitious York, and vengeful Richard, Shakespeare captured a spectrum of humanity and raised questions about duty to God, country, and family. Scholars rightly argue that Shakespeare’s most nuanced work and best writing came after Henry VI, but the compelling narrative Shakespeare created in these three plays is a testament to his early talent.
Ultimately, Shakespeare revealed in Henry VI his ability to create exciting entertainment that captivates modern audiences as much as it did Elizabethan spectators. With ambitious usurpers, family squabbles, court intrigue, broken allegiances, love affairs, murder, riots, witches, pirates, battles, and heads on pikes, the three parts of Henry VI are basically Game of Thrones with more poetry. So pick a side, Lancaster or York, red rose or white, and join us as the Wars of the Roses play out at the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse for the next two weekends.
Get your tickets here: http://www.shakespearetavern.com/index.php?/performances/show/hvi_rep_fall20163/.