by Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg
I have always wished that the early works of Shakespeare hadn’t so largely disappeared beneath the weight of his monumental tragedies (think Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello) and enchanting comedies (A Midsummer Night’s Dream being one of the all-time favorites). It was a thrill in 2011 when we got to do two early works, Titus Andronicus (directed by Joel Sass) and The Taming of the Shrew (directed by Shana Cooper): two of the works that Shakespeare was piecing together in the very same years that he was creating his first history plays—the Henry VI trilogy.
By the early 1590s, London’s population had doubled from the beginning of the century, with 200,000 inhabitants ready to fill the theaters. Shakespeare was under 30 years of age and had a wife and three children, whom he had settled in Stratford while he established himself as a playwright in London. In 1592 London was ravaged by a renewed onslaught of the plague—dreadfully feared for its symptoms—first a swelling of the groin, then an evil-smelling pus, fever, carbuncles, coma, and most likely death. (The disease would claim the life of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet a few years later in 1595, at the age of 11).
In London, except for the months when the theaters had to close at the height of the plague, Shakespeare’s players had a hugely busy schedule. His actors were performing in other playwrights’ works as well as his own. But when we look at the earnings for these performances of plays by such writers as Robert Greene and even Christopher Marlowe, something remarkable emerges. We see that on 3 March, 1592 (1591 in Shakespeare’s time because the Elizabethan calendar didn’t kick over till the end of March), the first performance of a Henry VI play was staged: and that the company’s earnings shot up from the usual 86 pence or 82 and a half pence (today’s equivalent of about $300) to a remarkable 3 pounds and 16 shillings ($1600). Elizabethan audiences loved the Henry VI plays!
Part of this pleasure doubtless lay in the urge to create a collective national history
for the English people in the last years of Queen Elizabeth, the granddaughter of
Richmond (AKA Henry Tudor, AKA Henry VII). By the late 1500s it was clear that
the queen was soon going to die without issue, which made it a hugely unsettling
time for the English nation: and so the Henry VI plays provided a way of looking
back on the unsettled decades that had led to the present glories of the Tudor
dynasty, and to celebrate the benefits of Elizabeth’s long reign. The theater made
history accessible for those who could not read, teaching them to celebrate
England’s heroes and vilify its enemies, in particular the French. Pamphleteer
Thomas Nashe wrote of the Henry VI plays:
How it would have joyed brave Talbot (the terror of the French) to think that after he had lain two hundred years in his tomb, he should triumph again on the stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of spectators who, in the tragedian who represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.
So how do audiences see these plays today? More accurately, why don’t audiences see these plays today? I think there are a couple of reasons. First, the figure of Henry VI, historical son to Henry V—a timid, shy man, crowned at the age of 10 months and never growing into maturity even when he succeeded to full sovereignty—has been eclipsed by the personality of his charismatic father, who, in Shakespeare’s Henry IV/Henry V trilogy, has eaten up the stage for centuries. Henry VI, prone to bouts of mental illness which left him in a coma, disappeared altogether from his regency from time to time. And when he was in situ on the throne, he cowered in the face of conflict.
Second, Henry VI Part I, while thrilling to its contemporary audiences, is a play almost entirely composed of rhyming couplets. While fabulous productions like TV’s The Hollow Crown can conquer the effect of these rhymes via stunning visuals and sound effects, Henry VI Part I is a much more difficult play to perform on stage. So we’ve taken two of this play’s fabulous features—the selection of the roses and the wooing of Queen Margaret, poor Henry’s bride, who begins her own ascendancy from her very first entrance, powerless, 15, and given away by her father with no dowry as a cheap gift to England—to a mammoth figure of female empowerment and eventual heartbreak.
Thus begins our tetralogy—the first half of our evening devoted to the finest features of these truly remarkable Henry VI plays, and the second half (post-intermission: hot chocolate, snacks, rollicking bottles of wine)—devoted to a full performance of one of Shakespeare’s most stunning creations—Richard III, the self-declared embodiment of mischievous evil. We’re beginning work on the tetralogy—what we’re calling The War of the Roses—at the top of the year. And we leave you for now with those famous words of Prospero, which one can imagine straight from the mouth of Shakespeare himself:
“Graves at my command have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ‘em forth.”
Welcome, Henry VI and all your companions, including Richard—from earth to stage!