Wednesday, January 09, 2019

William Shakespeare (kind of): 1 Henry VI

Talbot and son

[Image source: . From a performance at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.]

“In what history did your grace find that incident?” said Burnet to the Duke of Marlborough, on hearing him quote some anecdote concerning the wars of York and Lancaster which was new to the Bishop. “In Shakspeare’s plays,” answered the Victor of Blenheim, — “the only history of those times I ever read.”

(From Sir Walter Scott's review-essay of Boaden's Life of Kemble  and Michael Kelly's Reminiscences)


This post records my delighted discovery of an online PDF of Paul J Vincent's 2005 PhD thesis about 1 Henry VI.

"The Genesis of the First Part of Henry VI" (University of Auckland). [It's also rather wittily nicknamed "when harey met Shakespeare" -- you'll see why.]

(I think that should take you to it. If not, do a Google search on "paul j vincent henry vi" and you'll find it.)

This was a great opportunity for me to get up to speed on what scholars have managed to establish about the origin of this problematic play. Vincent builds on the foundation of Gary Taylor's argument in "Shakespeare and Others" (which itself rehabilitates Gaw and Dover Wilson), but Vincent's conclusions have some significant differences from Taylor's. [Brian Vickers, I've read, largely assents.]

So, what are they? 

1H6 was written as a prequel to the already extant 2H6 and 3H6, but not by Shakespeare. It was the "harey the vj" performed by Lord Strange's Men seventeen times between 3/3/1592 and 31/1/1593 (see end of post for details). A very successful venture, judging from Philip Henslowe's diary.

(Vincent -- I can't remember if this was his own idea or another's -- speculates that the subject of Talbot was chosen as a compliment to Lord Strange. Talbot was an ancestor of Lord Strange. This is likely enough, but it's gracelessly executed. Sir William Lucy tells us, in IV.7, that one of  Talbot's  titles is Lord Strange of  Blackmere, but the authors were unable to resist raising a cheap laugh about the rigmarole of Talbot's excessive titles, so let's hope Lord Strange was fairly thick-skinned.)

These original authors were Thomas Nashe (Act I) and "Y" (Acts 2 - 5). Thus Nashe, commenting admiringly on the stage Talbot in Pierce Pennilesse (also dedicated to Lord Strange), was praising his own play. We don't know the identity of Y, but apparently it was not one of the named dramatists with whom comparative textual analysis can be attempted, i.e. Nashe, Peele, Greene, or Marlowe -- or Shakespeare. [I'd love to see a stylistic comparison of Y with the anonymous author of Edward III.]

At some stage Shakespeare's company acquired the play, and Shakespeare then made some powerful though apparently incomplete revisions (Vincent suggests this was in 1594, but the date isn't closely defended). Shakespeare added the new Temple Garden scene (II.4), probably intending it to replace the Tower scene (II.6), and he replaced the scenes of Talbot's downfall (IV.2 - beginning of IV.7)... though, once more, Y's IV.6 is accidentally preserved in F. Part of the motive of these revisions was apparently to make 1H6 a more powerful statement of the principal theme of 2H6 and 3H6: the disastrous consequences of civil discord. Perhaps the Lord Chamberlain's Men planned to perform all the plays in sequence.

Vincent's conclusions differ from Gary Taylor's in two important respects. Taylor had assigned the Folio text to four authors: Z (Nashe -- Act 1); Y (Acts 3 and 5); X (Shakespeare -- 2.4 and 4.2-5, start of 4.7); and W (the rest of Acts 2 and 4). Vincent shows that the evidence for distinguishing W from Y is inadequate: W is an unnecessary complication. He also argues that Shakespeare's contributions were all revisions and were not present in the original play, which thus had just two authors, i.e. Nashe and Y.

Vincent's authorship analysis (based on textual analysis, including matching the Literature Online database) seems -- as far as I can tell without re-doing the work, but it looks very thorough -- more firmly established than his theory of provenance. The latter, however, does make sense of the longstanding problem of "hary the vj" belonging to a company that Shakespeare isn't known to have worked for.. Henslowe's diary of the Lord Strange era records no performances of any Shakespeare plays -- unless "harey the vj" is one... But if "harey the vj" wasn't originally by Shakespeare, then everything falls into place.

Of course this poses a new question: how would Shakespeare's company acquire one of their former rival's most successful plays? Perhaps in early 1594, when the short-lived Earl of Sussex's men appear to have inherited plays both from Lord Strange's men (e.g. The Jew of Malta) and from Pembroke's company (Titus Andronicus)? That joint legacy might then have ended up in the hands of the Lord Chamberlain's Men (formed in late 1594).

If 1H6 is "harey the vj" and was new in March 1592, this tends to be an external argument for it being written later than 2H6. Vincent's thesis also gives a lot of detail about the internal arguments for thinking 1H6 was written after 2H6. For instance, 2H6 doesn't mention Talbot, shows little awareness of the rose symbolism, shows the dissension of the nobles as having not yet begun, and has different conceptions of the characters of Humphrey of Gloucester and Margaret.

But some of these issues remain issues for Vincent's thesis. If 1H6 was always consciously intended to prelude the already extant 2H6 (as clearly shown by V.3 and V.5, and even its misleading title) why didn't its authors make Humphrey and Margaret consistent with the play that already existed? Because they didn't have access to the text, and couldn't remember it in enough detail? 

Vincent seems to go down the road of thinking  that V.3 and V.5 were a bit of an afterthought; a revision or eleventh-hour rethink. But according to his own authorship tests these scenes are by Y, the original author of Acts 2-5, not by Shakespeare. So he concludes, rather ambiguously, that although the Suffolk/Margaret scenes were not part of the original conception they were nevertheless part of the original composition. But why should Y suddenly think, "I'd better put in some Sussex and Margaret"?

I'm not persuaded that this ending was as unplanned as Vincent implies. V.1 had already introduced the topic of Henry marrying; evidently this was meant to lead on to something.

 (Incidentally I'm also not persuaded that Henry's lovestruck behaviour in 5.5 shows a troubling inconsistency  with his character earlier in the play. It's almost axiomatic in drama of this period that people who disclaim any interest in love then proceed to fall violently in love -- think of Proteus in 2GV. It's not subtle or clever, but a jobbing playwright like Y would see sounding this hackneyed motif as a plus.)

We can only go so far with this discussion before we have to address the question of the provenance of 2H6 and 3H6. Unfortunately  they lie outside the scope of his thesis, but Vincent says enough to show that he doesn't think they are pure Shakespeare compositions. (Unlike Richard III, apparently.)


A few other thoughts.

 1. If Shakespeare's II.4 was simply absent from the original version of the play, then Y's IV.1 would have introduced the rose symbolism from nowhere. The audience might understand that Henry's red rose is Somerset's badge, not York's. But the visual impact of what Henry does in IV.1 is immensely enhanced if we have just witnessed the meaning attached to the roses in II.4 .

2. Also in IV.1, Gloucester (Humphrey) is a voice of peace regarding the York/Somerset enmity.  It's true that earlier in the play he was a wrangler himself. But surely his portrayal in IV.1 fits reasonably well with that of 2H6, and seriously undercuts the argument about his inconsistent portrayals in the two plays.

So maybe that answers the question about the prequel matching the (already extant) sequel. And David Nicol (see below) makes the interesting suggestion that Margaret in 1H6 is meant to seem a bit different (and yet not wholly different) from Margaret in 2H6.. the audience would have got an extra thrill from Margaret's true character being almost concealed, and from enjoying the dramatic irony of Sussex's smug belief that he will be able to control her.

But of course these perceptions also undercut some of the arguments for 1H6 having been composed after 2H6. If what we are looking at is not character inconsistency but character development, then that could also fit with the plays being planned and written in their natural sequence (though the dramatic irony, of course, would only be discerned retrospectively).

I should mention another argument that appears in Vincent's thesis. On the basis of Tamburlaine, he argues that "First Part" plays were bound to be complete in themselves; they needed to stand up on their own. Part II of Tamburlaine was a commercially-motivated afterthought. So the fact that 1H6's ending so patently points forward to 2H6 is clear evidence for it being, in fact, a prequel to a successful play that already existed.

That may well be true in this case, but the general argument has a highly doubtful consequence. Because the endings of 2H6 and 3H6 are both highly inconclusive. These plays self-consciously do not stand on their own (the ending of 2H6, in particular, has "To Be Continued" written all over it).  But surely no-one wants to argue that the sequence of composition must therefore have been R3, 3H6, 2H6, 1H6?

In truth, I don't see why what was certainly true of Tamburlaine should be the only way that things could be done in those highly experimental days. The audience of 2H6 might have gone home both thorougholy satisifed with today's entertainment and desperate to come back next week for the sequel.


The 1592-1594 closures of the London playhouses.

This information is dredged from David Nicol's astonishing (and still unfolding) blog of Henslowe's diary.

This cluster of closures began on 23/6/1592, in response to a riot in Southwark. Initially the closure was meant to end at Michaelmas (29/9/1592), but in the meantime the plague had become strong, so the closure was extended to 29/12/1592.

This time the playhouses did re-open (the plague tended to slacken off in winter), but only for about a month. On 28/1/1593 another closure was ordered. The last Rose performance was the Jew of Malta on 1/2/1593. The day before, they had played "harey the vj".

The London theatres stayed closed for nearly a year. Apparently both Pembroke's and Lord Strange's companies collapsed during this recess.

On 26/12/1593 performances began again; the Earl of Sussex's Men now used the Rose. Among other plays they performed Titus Andronicus three times before the next closure (ordered 3/2/1594, last performance on 6/2/1594).

Performances at the Rose began again on 1/4/1594, but only until 9/4/1594. There was then another hiatus (reasons unknown) until 14-16/5/1594, and then another until, on 5/6/1594, regular performances finally resumed for an extended period.


Performances of "harey the vj" by Lord Strange's Men:





Arguments for 1H6 being later than 2H6.

There are four kinds.

1. External evidence that the date of 1H6 is later than the date of 2H6. (Bearing in mind, however, that plays don't always have a single period of composition, owing to ongoing revision etc.)

2. Internal stylistic evidence that 2H6 is earlier than 1H6. (Largely a theoretical category here. Obviously works best when the same author wrote both plays, which many think is only partially true in this case.)

3. Internal evidence from 2H6, tending to show that 1H6 was not already in existence.

4. Internal evidence from 1H6, tending to show awareness of 2H6.

3 and 4 are much more problematic than may appear. It needs to be emphasized that inconsistency, in itself, is not evidence for priority.

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