Elizabethan Drama and Shakespeare's Early Plays: An Essay in Historical Criticism

By Ernest William Talbert | Go to book overview

V

The Henry VI Trilogy and
Richard III

IN CONTRAST TO a feature of the artistry that has been discussed in the previous chapter, when Shakespeare wrote his earliest histories he does not seem to have been concerned with effecting a sixteenth-century multiplicity within a five-act structure. He seems rather to have been interested in producing effects that accord with current theatrical and rhetorical practices and with a tradition that for all practical purposes died out with the end of the mystery cycles. For that matter, the following examination of the Henry VI trilogy supports the normal assumption that when an author capable of effecting a particular kind of unity does not do so, he quite possibly has another artistic purpose in mind.

A failure to view the dramas about Henry VI in the light just indicated may have lead modern critics to become preoccupied with advancing theories about collaboration or revision and with underlining reflections in those plays of a current "policy" or of a simplified scale of being. Unfortunately, this latter approach leaves one with the impression that the three parts of Henry VI are essentially dramatic treatises meant to mirror current propaganda, or dramatized sermons on unity and obedience that have England as their hero. Granted that Shakespeare, who used current histories as his sources, might be expected to show propagandistic aspects of Tudor historiography, yet by emphasizing that fact, no less than by focusing one's attention on signs of "revision," Shakespeare as an effective popular dramatist languishes, even as he gains sureness in his art and develops a skill in delineating a great variety of characters. 1

Although the Henry VI trilogy stands in striking contrast to the histories of Queen Elizabeth's Men 2 -- the company that before Shakespeare's time had shown the greatest interest in England's annals -- it seems logical to begin a consideration of the preceding statements by turning directly to Shakespeare's plays and noticing what seems inescapable when each play is viewed in its entirety and in its relationship to the others. But as in all art, so here. The line between technique and

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