The History of the Play

The earliest allusion to any part of 3 Henry VI is found in Robert Greene's Groatsworth of Wit (1592), where one line[1] is parodied in a connection which shows that Shakespeare had already been employed in revising the drama. The Shakespearean text was not printed till the appearance of the Shakespeare Folio in 1623, but the earlier play, out of which 3 Henry VI was produced, was published in 1595 with the title: 'The true Tragedie of Richard Duke of Yorke, and the death of good King Henrie the Sixt, with the whole contention betweene the two Houses Lancaster and Yorke, as it was sundrie times acted by the Right Honourable the Earle of Pembrooke his seruants.' This was reprinted in 1600 and again, with some minor corrections, in 1619. On the last occasion the True Tragedy was published in combination with the early version of 2 Henry VI (The First Part of the Contention) under the blanket title of 'The Whole Contention betweene the two Famous Houses, Lancaster and Yorke. With the Tragicall ends of the good Duke Humfrey, Richard Duke of Yorke, and King Henrie the sixt.' A facsimile of the title-page of the 1619 edition, which for the first time introduces the name of Shakespeare as author, is given as frontispiece of the present volume.

There is little evidence concerning the history of the play in the time of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. The title-page of the first edition of the True Tragedy, quoted above, shows that it was acted by the Earl of Pembroke's Company of actors, who disbanded in 1593. The Epilogue to Shakespeare's Henry V (1599) implies that the Henry VI plays in general had often been shown in Shakespeare's theatre and had been well received. Ben Jonson's Prologue to the revised version of Every Man in his Humour (1616) refers to the plays dealing with 'York and Lancaster's long jars' as one of the popular but faulty types of drama of the day.

After the Restoration John Crowne rewrote 3 Henry VI under the title of The Miseries of Civil-War. Crowne's version was published in 1680, 'As it is Acted at the Duke's Theatre By His Royal Highnesses Servants.' The opening scenes, dealing with Cade's rebellion and the first battle of St. Albans, are drawn from 2 Henry VI.[2] Crowne romanticizes the story in the spirit of his age, making Warwick the unsuccessful lover of Lady Grey and adding further amatory interest by an episodic love affair between King Edward and Lady Eleanor Butler, who in the last act dons male disguisings and meets her death at Edward's hands on the battle field. Only 75 lines out of 2793 in this long piece are drawn directly from Shakespeare.[3]

That critical interest in Shakespeare's plays of Henry VI was not altogether lacking in Crowne's day appears from a note on the three plays in Gerard Langbaine's account of Shakespeare (Account of the English Dramatic Poets, 1691): 'These three Plays contain the whole length of this King's Reign, viz. Thirty Eight Years, six Weeks, and four Days. Altho' this be contrary to the strict Rules of Dramatick Poetry; yet it must be owned, even by Mr. Dryden himself, That this Picture in Miniature, has many Features, which excell even several of his more exact Strokes of Symmetry and Proportion.' It is probable that the Henry VI plays of Shakespeare were read more generally at this time, and with less sense of their inferiority, than in later periods.

In the next generation Theophilus Cibber produced a strange medley of Crowne's Miseries of Civil-War and Shakespeare's Henry VI under the title: 'An Historical Tragedy of the Civil Wars in the Reign of King Henry VI (Being a Sequel to the Tragedy of Humfrey Duke of Gloucester:[4] And an Introduction to the Tragical History of King Richard III). Alter'd from Shakespear, in the Year 1720.'[5] In this work the luxuriances of Crowne are pruned away and a large amount of the Shakespearean text replaced.[6]

In 1795 Richard Valpy, a well-known schoolmaster of Reading on the Thames, brought out a work entitled: 'The Roses; or King Henry the Sixth; An Historical Tragedy Represented at Reading School, Oct. 15th, 16th, and 17th, 1795. Compiled principally from Shakespeare.' This play opens with the announcement of York's death to his sons, Edward and Richard (3 Henry VI II. i). It is essentially an acting version, for young performers, of the last four acts of 3 Henry VI, with occasional borrowings from the two earlier Parts and even, in one instance, from Richard II. The printed text was popular enough to reach a second edition in 1810.

A composite drama, called Richard Duke of York, was made by J. H. Merivale out of the three parts of Henry VI, and acted at Drury Lane Theatre, December 22, 1817, the chief part, that of York, being taken by Edmund Kean. The greater portion of Merivale's abridgment is drawn from 2 Henry VI, but his fifth act corresponds with the first act of Shakespeare's Third Part.

The actor, Charles Kemble (1775–1854), condensed the three parts of Henry VI into a single play, but does not appear to have produced his version on the stage.[7] In 1863 Shepherd and Anderson successfully acted at the Surrey Theatre an adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry VI, entitled The Wars of the Roses, the manuscript version of which was destroyed by fire in the following year. In 1864 3 Henry VI (altered and translated into German) was performed at Weimar as part of a series of Shakespearean history plays produced by Dingelstedt in honor of the poet's tercentenary.[8] The most important, if not the only, recent English revival was that of the F. R. Benson Company at the Shakespeare Memorial Festival, Stratford-on-Avon, May 4, 1906. Mr. Benson himself took the part of Richard of Gloucester.[9]

  1. I. iv. 137. Cf. note on this line, p. 119.
  2. For further details of this play and of Crowne's other piece, Henry the Sixth, or the Murder of the Duke of Glocester, see Appendix B to 2 Henry VI in this edition.
  3. The figures are those given by G. Krecke in his useful dissertation: Die englischen Bühnenbearbeitungen von Shakespeares 'King Henry the Sixth,' Rostock, 1911.
  4. I.e. Ambrose Philips' tragedy, based on 2 Henry VI, acted February 15, 1723.
  5. The 'Second Edition' is dated 1724; the first appeared apparently in 1723, and the play was performed at Drury Lane on July 5, 1723.
  6. According to Krecke (op. cit.) Cibber's version consists of 985 lines from Shakespeare, 507 from Crowne, and 746 of Cibber's own.
  7. The text of this abridgment was first printed, from Kemble's manuscript, in volume ii of the Henry Irving Shakespeare.
  8. For an account see L. Eckardt: Shakespeare's englische Historien auf der Weimarer Bühne, Shakespeare Jahrbuch i. 362–391.
  9. The entire group of history plays from Richard II to Richard III was produced in sequence on this occasion. See the London Athenæum, May 12, 1906.