The Wars of the Roses, does that mean anything to you?
It certainly didn’t to me until recently, when I started to become familiar with Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy that leads into his Richard III. As an American I probably wouldn’t have encountered it at all if I hadn’t decided to read all of Shakespeare’s plays aloud to myself, fairly close to the order he wrote them in. I say fairly close because no one living knows with certainty the order in which he wrote them. After looking at several chronologies of the plays I decided to strike out on my own and read them in a sequence that was fairly chronological and made sense to me.
Henry VI Part I is probably not Shakespeare’s first play, but Henry VI Parts II and III are consistently listed among his earliest works, so my personal quest through the plays begins here. Many see Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part I as a collaborative work, and an inferior one at that. I’ve read comments of contempt regarding this play, some of whose writers cannot believe that a genius of Shakespeare’s caliber could write as poorly or inaccurately as he does in this play.
A few thoughts here: Even in Shakespeare’s later plays there are passages that don’t scream genius to me. I have a feeling that if lines from plays written at that time period by other playwrights were set alongside random excerpts of his less familiar passages that most people, perhaps even some scholars, would struggle to rightly identify who was responsible for each. Is this a terrible, horrible thing? No.
Hopefully you grow as a writer as you write (one of the main reasons that I’m trying to read Shakespeare’s works in roughly the same order in which he wrote them, is to notice those changes and development). In the beginning it isn’t uncommon to be a bad imitation of a writer you’ve been exposed to or admire, or to wittingly or unwittingly incorporate some of another’s work and style into your own. Shakespeare borrowed most of his plots and stories, even in his later works. Why should this surprise us? Think of how many movies are adaptations of books, plays, fairytales, myths, etc. Do we howl over this? Sometimes- particularly when it doesn’t come off well- but when it does, you get Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility via Emma Thompson (which- prepare to be horrified- I prefer to the original book), or other movie gems like The Sound of Music (which is not particularly historically accurate) and It’s a Wonderful Life (which began its life as a short story that I found a bit… underwhelming but that Frank Capra saw the vein of gold in and transformed it into a classic).
As human beings not everything we attempt will be at the same level or achieve the same level of success or critical acclaim. Sometimes this is due to the critics and the audience and where they are at personally when they encounter our work, sometimes this is due to us.
Shakespeare wrote from the perspective of many characters from many different circumstances and walks of life. If his servants sounded erudite the audience would see them as pretentious or posing, and wouldn’t believe them. The fact that Shakespeare’s villains often have some of the best lines is actually consistent with real life in my experience. If you can talk and present yourself well, you can often get away with things, at least for awhile, that would have jailed or ostracized someone with less charisma or eloquence. Honesty and sincerity don’t necessarily lend themselves to suave interactions either publicly or privately. This, in part, is one of Henry VI’s difficulties, not so much in Henry VI Part I, which could rightly be named after Joan of Arc or Lord Talbot instead because these two actually dominate this part of the story, but later on when the Wars of the Roses begin.
Knowing the history of the Wars of the Roses will help in understanding Henry VI Parts I, II, and III to a degree, but you will likely still be confused by the sheer number of men who are referred to by several names and who switch allegiances throughout the trilogy. My advice? See the plays before reading them if you can. If a character surprises or confuses you, congratulations! You are probably experiencing a portion of the many frustrations and agonies that Henry VI himself did.
Keep in mind that Shakespeare wasn’t crafting a documentary with these plays. There are inaccuracies EVERYWHERE, especially in Part I. Some of them are due to prejudices of the time. There was a great deal of anti-Catholic and anti-French feeling in Shakespeare’s day (something still evident in our own) that distorted how the French were portrayed in this play, especially when it came to Joan of Arc. Other inaccuracies were used by Shakespeare to condense a large span of time into the confines of what a body could stand in a theatre setting and/or for dramatic effect. If you are interested in the details of this, Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare by Isaac Asimov (yes, the noted science fiction writer) is a helpful resource.
So if you’re not English, a fan of Shakespeare, the time period, or the theatre, why read Henry VI- especially when it is drawn out over the span of three (!) full length plays? Because what happens in Henry VI still happens now- ALL THE TIME. Take out the massive bloodshed aspect of them (or in some cases, with some countries, don’t) and you will see vividly the attitudes and actions that cripple governments and hurt the general population no matter who is in power, to this day. This set of plays shows how people get caught up and swept along by ambitious people vying for power. In this set of plays I saw World War II Germany, the Middle East, the United States presidency, courts, and congress. It’s all there, and so much of it is the same, but because it’s the Wars of the Roses we see it at a distance that helps us to be more objective and open to it, that aids us in helping to see our situation in a different, and possibly more enlightened, way.
Henry VI may or may not be great Shakespeare but if we allow it to, it still has the power to touch and engage us.