The Complete Works (Oxford Shakespeare) - William Shakespeare, John Jowett, Gary Taylor

I meant to write up a short note about the Henry VIs (parts 1, 2, and 3) after finishing the plays last week, but then RL – travel and becoming a citizen – interfered at short notice.

I originally meant to only explore Henry VI, Part 1, but I enjoyed it so much that I just kept reading the other two parts, too. (I’m not including Richard III as part of the series even if it is meant to be. RIII stands independently for me. Blame Josephine Tey for that.)

What I loved best about Henry VI, Part 1, was that is was so different from the two earlier plays. Where Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Taming of the Shrew had been disappointing and superficial, Henry VI was gripping and complex right from the outset.

Maybe it was the historical topic, maybe it was the influence and / or contribution of other writers to the play – and comparing the depth of thought between the previous plays (including Henry VI Parts 2 and 3, which were written before Part 1) and this one alone makes a persuasive argument for this play being a collaboration of Shakespeare and others – but there was a distinct difference to the earlier plays.

Right from page 1, we are thrown into high drama, when the nobles mourn the passing of Henry V amidst the ongoing war between England and France.

Two pages later, we are introduced to Joan of Arc.

This really was gripping from the start and no historical inaccuracy – and there were lots – could lessen my enjoyment of this Part.

Now, I set out to read the parts of Henry VI in order even tho Part 1 was written after Part 3, and I have no regrets about this. Part 1 was the most engaging of the three – aristocratic bickering, war, witches, bitches, intrigue, murder, fabulous swear words… what’s not to love?

Parts 2 and 3 suffered from the drama of Part 1. Had I started with Part 2, the one written first, I am not sure I would have made to Part 1.

Tho, I liked Parts 2 and 3 as part of the bigger story of the War of the Roses, and there is much to like about the portrayal of political intrigue in Part 2 and the impact of the war on the people in Part 3, each of those parts need the bigger frame work of the story, whereas Part 1 was a satisfying play in and of itself.

I’ll have to add a qualification, however: Henry VI Part 3 has another thing going for it:

The rise of Richard of Gloucester, the subsequent Richard III. Richard is already portrayed as as the glorious villain that we come to love to despise in Shakespeare’s later play, irrespective of the historical inaccuracies.


I’ll hear no more. Die, prophet, in thy speech,

[He stabs him]

For this, amongst the rest, was I ordained.


Ay, and for much more slaughter after this.

O, God forgive my sins, and pardon thee.

[He dies]


What—will the aspiring blood of Lancaster

Sink in the ground?I thought it would have mounted.

See how my sword weeps for the poor King’s death.

O, may such purple tears be alway shed

From those that wish the downfall of our house!

If any spark of life be yet remaining,

Down, down to hell, and say I sent thee thither—

[He stabs him again]

I that have neither pity, love, nor fear.

Indeed, ’tis true that Henry told me of,

For I have often heard my mother say

I came into the world with my legs forward.

Had I not reason, think ye, to make haste,

And seek their ruin that usurped our right?

The midwife wondered and the women cried

‘O, Jesus bless us, he is born with teeth f—

And so I was, which plainly signified

That I should snarl and bite and play the dog.

Then, since the heavens have shaped my body so,

Let hell make crooked my mind to answer it.

I had no father, I am like no father;

I have no brother, I am like no brother;

And this word, ‘love’, which greybeards call divine,

Be resident in men like one another

And not in me—I am myself alone.

Clarence, beware; thou kept’st me from the light—

But I will sort a pitchy day for thee.

For I will buzz abroad such prophecies

That Edward shall be fearful of his life,

And then, to purge his fear, I’ll be thy death.

Henry and his son are gone; thou, Clarence, art next;

And by one and one I will dispatch the rest,

Counting myself but bad till I be best.

I’ll throw thy body in another room

And triumph, Henry, in thy day of doom.

[Exit with the body]

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