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Authorship of the Play

In the vexed problem of the authorship of the Second Part of Henry VI two separate questions are involved:

(a) Who wrote the subsidiary play of The First Part of the Contention, preserved for us in the edition of 1594 and the reissues of 1600 and 1619?

(b) By whom were the large and often redundant additions made which distinguish the 1628 text of 2 Henry VI from the First Part of the Contention?

These questions can be only briefly treated here.[1] The First Part of the Contention is either a particularly rough and unfinished work, or it has been very unfaithfully represented in the published versions. It contains a little less than two thousand lines, of which only about 1250 may be scanned as pentameter verse. In such a case arguments based upon elaborate stylistic analysis are more than usually dangerous. That Marlowe, however, was largely responsible for the play seems now to be the general belief. Evidence of many kinds points to his authorship: (1) the powerful, if rude, singleness and consistency of plot conception; (2) the predominance of Marlovian types of character, boisterous and self-assertive, like York, Suffolk, Queen Margaret, the Duchess Eleanor, Cardinal Beaufort, Warwick, and Cade; (3) a remarkably numerous and striking series of verbal parallels with passages in Marlowe's accepted writings; (4) metrical evidence, which shows the author of the uncorrupted verse portions of the play to have had many of Marlowe's most characteristic peculiarities of poetic style.

The theory that the Contention contains, besides Marlowe's work, scenes by other writers, such as Greene, Peele, or Shakespeare himself, has given rise to much discussion. Particularly in regard to the partly humorous scenes in the fourth act, in which Cade and his followers figure, there has been manifested an unwillingness to credit Marlowe's authorship and a desire to recognize that of Shakespeare.[2] I see little prospect of reaching conclusive results on these points. The theory that the Contention was written by Marlowe at all, or by any other reputable writer of blank verse, is allowable only on the assumption that there has been much contamination of the extant texts; and the inequality of style is more safely attributed to theatrical manipulation or careless transcribing and printing than to a fundamental division of authorship. The Cade scenes, as they appear in the Contention, are not unworthy of the young Shakespeare, but they bear no indelible stamp of his hand, and the wisest attitude toward them is perhaps that agnostically expressed by Mr. F. A. Marshall (Henry Irving Shakespeare): 'If Shakespeare's claim to have been part author of The Contention and The True Tragedy rests chiefly on the humours of Jack Cade and his company of rebels, we may feel ourselves at perfect liberty to believe that he had no share in them whatever.'

(b) That other writers than Shakespeare assisted in the revision of The First Part of the Contention and The True Tragedy into the Second and Third Parts of Henry VI has been often suggested, most recently by Dr. Else von Schaubert, who argues in a very elaborate dissertation[3] that Michael Drayton was author of considerable portions of both the Second and Third Parts. For this view, as well as for that which would make Marlowe himself Shakespeare's assistant in the revision, I see no sufficient evidence.

Whether Shakespeare's revision, as printed in the Folio of 1623, represents the work as completed by him in 1592, or whether it is the result of a series of recastings, is hard to say. It is natural to assume that the text may have been subjected to some alteration as often as the plays were revived on Shakespeare's stage, but there seems no ground for supposing that any very essential changes were made after Shakespeare had attained full maturity as a writer. Stylistically the Shakespearean portions of 1 Henry VI testify to a later date of composition than the Shakespearean portions of the Second and Third Parts.

The study of the rewritten or additional matter in 2 Henry VI and 3 Henry VI, which in the former play exceeds and in the latter amounts to about three fourths of the total length of the basic play, offers one of the best opportunities to gauge the trend of Shakespeare's poetical abilities near the beginning of his career. As compared with the original author (Marlowe) it is evident that the reviser, Shakespeare, had broader sympathies. He is interested in a greater variety of types of human beings, and exerts himself to do justice to such good but weak personalities as King Henry and Gloucester, who in the original versions had been left shadowy and negative. These characters are greatly improved and much more fully developed in the revised plays. On the other hand, the reviser has evidently less maturity and finality in his view of life than the original author: he sentimentalizes and frequently blurs the outlines of the earlier plays, particularly in his handling of the harsh and limited, but clean-cut, evil figures depicted in the Contention and True Tragedy: York, Suffolk, Margaret, Beaufort, etc. Rhetorical declamation and prettinesses of figurative illustration tempt him to undramatic and frequently inconsistent additions, of which the effect is to lower the dramatic pitch of the scene.[4] This tendency shows itself uncurbed in 2 Henry VI: in the Third Part the poet gets it under better control.[5]

In metrical matters also the habit of the young Shakespeare displays itself. He has revised the scansion of the verses with almost meticulous conscientiousness and in doing so exhibits mannerisms distinctly different from those of his original. He inclines much more to the use of the feminine-ending or eleven-syllable line than the author of the basic plays, and tends to avoid the weak-ending (final pyrrhic) line and the alexandrine.[6]


  1. They are discussed more fully in a monograph on The Authorship of the Second and Third Parts of King Henry VI, Conn. Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1912.
  2. Cf. J. Q. Adams, A Life of William Shakespeare, p. 137: 'The plays (i.e. The First Part of the Contention and True Tragedy) show unmistakable signs of Shakespeare's workmanship.' Ibid., p. 136, note 3: 'There is no ground for the supposition that Greene had a share in these plays. . . . On the other hand, it seems quite possible that George Peele was associated with Marlowe in their composition.'
  3. Draytons Anteil an 'Heinrich VI,' 2 u. 3. Teil, Neue Anglistische Arbeiten, 1920. (The author accepts the old theory that the Contention and True Tragedy are not earlier plays, but pirated versions of the Shakespearean plays.)
  4. A number of passages in which the Shakespearean version deviates significantly from the source play are referred to in the notes to this edition. See those on I. i. 144 f., 235 f.; I. iii. 18–22, 174 f.; II. ii. 39–42; II. iii. 7 f.; III. i. 9–12, 331 f., 356–359; III. ii. 26, 344 f.; IV. i. 1–7; V. ii. 58 f.
  5. For detailed discussion see Authorship of 2 and 3 Henry VI (Conn. Academy), pp. 194–211: 'Shakespeare's Revision of Marlowe’s Work.'
  6. Ibid., pp. 177–183: 'Metrical Evidence.'