Thursday, 3 March 2016

3 March, 1592 - Harry VI

Here's what Lord Strange's Men performed at the Rose playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...

Henslowe writes: ne ... R at harey the vj the 3 of marche 1591 ... iijll xvjs 8d

In modern English: New. Received at Harry VI, 3rd March 1592 ... £3, 16 shillings and eightpence.
Today, we have the first appearance of William Shakespeare in Henslowe's Diary! Well, sort of. The extent to which Shakespeare was actually involved in Harry VI is unclear, but this entry sheds some interesting light on his early career successes. 

There are a couple of things to say about what Henslowe wrote today. First, notice that he writes "ne" next to the entry. Henslowe will add these letters to a few other plays in the future, and scholars have determined that he probably means "new"; in other words, he's noting the first performance of a new play. Secondly, you can see that London's theatregoers were very excited about this new play called Harry VI, because Henslowe achieved his best box office so far. There are twenty shillings in a pound, so he made 75 shillings today, far more than the 50 he made with The Jew of Malta a few days ago).

So, what was this instant blockbuster called Harry VI? It was almost certainly the play we know today as The First Part of Henry VI by Shakespeare (probably written in collaboration with others. To understand how we know this, it's easiest to begin by looking at the story of Shakespeare's play and then at the evidence connecting it with Harry VI.

What happens in The First Part of Henry VI...


1540s portrait of King Henry VI
The First Part of Henry VI is set in the 15th century, in the aftermath of the early death of the heroic King Henry V, and the coronation of his son, a mere child, as Henry VI.

England is losing its lands in France to a rebellion. The French army is aided by Joan of Arc (called Joan la Pucelle in the play), who is presented as a sinister, witch-like figure who can conjure devils. But the English have their own weapon of mass destruction: the great warrior Lord Talbot, who triumphs at Orléans and Rouen.

Meanwhile, civil war is brewing in England, emerging out of a quarrel between Richard, Duke of York, and the Duke of Somerset. The two factions show their allegiance by choosing red or white roses from a bush. The tensions undermine Talbot's successes in France when rivalry between York and Somerset causes reinforcements to be delayed and Talbot to be killed in battle at Bordeaux.

Joan at the stake; detail from
Vigiles du roi Charles VII (1484)
The play ends with uneasy optimism: Joan is captured and Richard has her burned at the stake; and the French and English agree to forge peace by marrying King Henry to a Frenchwoman. The Earl of Suffolk has captured Margaret of Anjou, a French noblewoman, and persuades Henry to marry her.

But Suffolk, who has fallen in love with Margaret, is not trustworthy: in the play's last lines, he tells the audience,

Margaret shall now be queen, and rule the king:
But I will rule both her, the king, and realm.

And on this cliffhanger ending, the play seems designed to make us want to see The Second Part of King Henry VI...

Is Harry VI another name for Shakespeare's The First Part of Henry VI?


The evidence for Harry VI being Shakespeare's play is pretty strong. In his 1592 book Piers Penniless's Supplication to the Devil, Thomas Nashe described the popular success of a patriotic play featuring Lord Talbot:

How would it have joyed brave Talbot, the terror of the French, to think that after he had lain two hundred years in his tomb, he should triumph again on the stage and have his bones new-embalmed with the tears of 10,000 spectators at least (at several times), who, in the tragedian that represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.

Imaginary portrait of Talbot
by Thomas Cecil, c.1626-32
The play Nashe describes featured the triumphs and death of the famous Lord Talbot, just as Shakespeare's play does. And the apparent popularity of this play (with its "ten thousand spectators") fits with the box office receipts of Harry VI. Furthermore, Nashe's book is dedicated to Lord Strange - the patron of the company that performed Harry VI - and in it he praises the company's leading actor, Edward Alleyn. All of this suggests that Nashe is describing the Harry VI of Lord Strange's Men and that Harry VI  has survived under the title The First Part of Henry VI. 
That much is clear. More confusing is the play's relationship with the Second  and Third parts; here we need to take things more slowly...

What exactly is The First Part of Henry VI?

The Second Part in the
1623 First Folio
1. In 1623, the first ever collected works of Shakespeare (the 'First Folio') was published. In it are three plays about the Wars of the Roses, entitled The First Part of Henry VI, The Second Part of Henry VI, and The Third Part of Henry VI. They are among Shakespeare's earliest plays. Along with his Tragedy of King Richard III they form a 'tetralogy' (a linked series of four plays).

The Second Part, published
in 1594 as The First Part
of the Contention
2. But the Henry VI plays didn't always have those titles. In 1594, a version of The Second Part was printed under the title The First Part of the Contention betwixt the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster. And in 1595, a version of The Third Part was printed under the title The True Tragedy of Richard, Duke of York, and the Death of Good King Henry VIwith the Whole Contention between the Two Houses, Lancaster and York. These titles imply that in the 1590s, the Second and Third parts were thought of as a two-parter. And those two plays never refer back to the events of The First Part. So why does The First Part (which was never printed before 1623) even exist?

3. Another weird thing is that a 1592 book called Greene's Groatsworth of Wit alludes to The Third Part as if it was so well-known that readers were expected to  recognize specific lines from it. If The Third Part was already well-known in 1592, why was The First Part described by Henslowe in that year as "new"?

4. Because of all this, the general consensus among scholars is that Part One was written after the other two; it was a 'prequel' about the backstory of the already popular First Part of the Contention and True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York. The plays were then renamed the First, Second and Third parts later.

Choosing the Red and White Roses
by Henry Payne (1908)
5. That's why The First Part seems so detached from the other two. Indeed, it might not even have been written for the same company, because The First Part of the Contention and True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York never appear in Henslowe's Diary. One theory is that Lord Strange's Men observed the success of a rival company performing Shakespeare's two-parter about Henry VI's reign, and decided to piggyback on its popularity by creating their own prequel; later, Shakespeare's company acquired the play and the three plays were finally performed together. (That's only one of several alternative theories, but it gives you a sense of how complicated the background of this play may have been.)

6. But what of Shakespeare?  Many modern scholars think Shakespeare didn't actually write much of The First Part (different styles are detectable within it, and collaborative authorship was very common at the time) and there is a complex debate ongoing about exactly how much Shakespeare wrote and who his co-authors were. Does this mean that Strange's Men hired Shakespeare and others to quickly put together a prequel to his own work? Or perhaps Shakespeare had nothing to do with the original Harry VI and what we read today is a version that he reworked once his own company had got hold of it? Again, there are many theories.

If you've read this far and are still interested, I recommend the detailed reassessment of the evidence in Sally-Beth MacLean and Lawrence Manley's book (cited below). However, you may well feel by this point that the play's the thing and you no longer care when it was made and by whom! So, let's look instead at...

The play today

As we have seen, The First Part of Henry VI was extremely popular when it was first performed at the Rose (and would continue to be so for some time); we can speculate that Edward Alleyn was at his barnstorming best as the warrior Talbot, and we could even speculate that the demonic Joan of Arc was an attempt at recycling the fun of the demonic Pope Joan in the play performed two days previously.

For modern audiences and theatre practitioners, however, The First Part is much less appealing, and is rarely staged. It's easy to see why: the plot is episodic, and some of the writing is bland. As a result, The First Part is almost never performed by itself and is seen only on those rare occasions when ambitious theatre companies perform the entire trilogy (or the entire tetralogy including Richard III). If you'd like to look at images from different productions, the Designing Shakespeare website from Royal Holloway University is a great way of doing so. And look out for Kings of War, an upcoming postmodern adaptation by the amazing Toneelgroep Amsterdam.

Brenda Blethyn as Joan of Arc in the BBC
Shakespeare film of The First Part of 
Henry VI (1981)
But even when it's performed within the trilogy, The First Part is often condensed or rearranged. This is evident in the few available film versions, all of which have been made for TV. The 1960 BBC series An Age of Kings condensed the play into a 1-hour episode. The RSC's Wars of the Roses series, filmed by the BBC in 1965, shrunk it into two 50-minute episodes. [Update 7/5/16: the BBC's 2016 Hollow Crown adaptation is equally truncated.] The only (almost) uncut version is the 1981 TV film for the BBC Shakespeare series, directed by Jane Howell; a low-budget production with a deliberately artificial aesthetic, it offers the only opportunity most people will have to see The First Part of Henry VI in its entirety.

What we learn from this


One thing that the success of Harry VI demonstrates is that Elizabethan audiences liked prequels. We've already seen some possible prequels in Henslowe's Diary: Muly Molocco may have been a prequel to The Battle of Alcazar, and The Spanish Comedy may have been a prequel to The Spanish Tragedy.

Prequels remain popular today, of course, as we, like the Elizabethans, desire to see what happened to the characters we enjoy before they became the characters we enjoy. It's a shame that the most famous modern examples - George Lucas's godawful prequels to the Star Wars trilogy  - are as aesthetically problematic as The First Part of Henry VI. But even those films manage to send occasional shivers down the spines of those who love the original works, as our knowledge of what the characters will become colours our experience of watching their formation...

Margaret of Anjou,
illustration from the
Talbot Shrewsbury
Book 1444-5
A great example in The First Part of Henry VI is the penultimate scene, in which the Earl of Suffolk captures Lady Margaret. In Shakespeare's Second and Third parts, and in his Richard III,  Margaret is an extraordinary character, the dynamic and powerful "she-wolf of France" who contrasts with the quiescent King Henry, and who ultimately becomes a vengeful widow spitting fury at the usurping Richard. The audience at the Rose would have been very familiar with this character, so when Margaret appears in The First Part as a fairly ordinary young noblewoman who nonetheless shows flashes of wit and strength, the audience might get a vertiginous thrill as they imagine the future that the character is as yet unaware of. And they will know that Suffolk's smug belief in his dominance over Margaret will prove horribly misguided.



Information on The First Part of Henry VI

  • Edward Burns, ed. King Henry VI, Part 1. The Arden Shakespeare (Thomson, 2000), 67-90.
  • Michael Taylor, ed. Henry VI, Part One. The Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford University, Press, 2005), 1-14. 
  • Carol Chillington Rutter and Stuart Hampton-Reeves, Shakespeare in Production: The Henry VI Plays (Manchester University Press, 2009)
  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 3 (Oxford University Press, 2013), entry 919.
  • Sally-Beth MacLean and Lawrence Manley, Lord Strange's Men and their Plays (Yale University Press, 2014), 96-99 and chapter 9.

Henslowe links


Did I make a mistake? Do you have a question? Have you anything to add? Please post a comment below!


  1. I very much appreciate this fine summary of the relevant scholarship on the order of the three H6 plays.

  2. This blog tends to emphasize how much money was received at each performance--logically, since that is one of the main bits of information that Henslowe records in these entries.
    So here's a question: what makes for a great opening night? It seems that opening nights made more money than subsequent performances. Did Henslowe charge more on opening night?
    A more difficult, but to me more interesting question: how did audiences decide that *this play* (Harry VI) was one they wanted to see, not knowing much (anything?) about it? They were not, at this point, excited to see a play by Shakespeare, a completely obscure figure. And why would they want to see a play about Henry VI (rather than a more successful king)?

    1. Hi Joe,

      Thanks for these excellent questions! The high box office for premières is something that intrigues me too.

      Your first question is whether they might be explained by Henslowe charging higher prices for premières. This possibility has been bugging me too, and I'm in fact in the middle of writing up a new post provisionally entitled 'Why you shouldn't necessarily take this blog too literally'. So, instead of answering the question, I'll just say 'watch this space', as there'll be a post on this subject in a few days.

      However, if the high box office receipts for premières are indeed indicating packed theatres, it must be because the audience valued novelty. That isn't too strange, if one thinks about the way popular movies work today - they tend to have a big opening weekend before slowly fading away as increasing familiarity causes audiences to dwindle.

      Your other question is about why audiences would choose to go see a new play that they didn't know much about, e.g. why would they flock to see a play about an infamously unsuccessful king like Henry VI? In the specific case of Harry VI, it's probably because (as I explain in the post), the play was deliberately written to capitalize on familiarity with two existing plays about Henry VI, so that excitement and anticipation would be easy to arouse.

      But beyond the specific case of Harry VI, we have to remember the power of marketing. The new plays would be advertised across London on playbills and via vocal 'cryers' in public places. These advertisements would make the new play's content clear and enticing. The best discussion of this is in Tiffany Stern's book Documents of Performance in Early Modern England. No playbills have survived from the period, but they likely looked something like the title pages of the printed editions of plays, which often feature enticing descriptions of their content. For example, the title page of the original publication of Henry VI Part Two calls it in full The first part of the contention betwixt the two famous houses of York and Lancaster, with the death of the good Duke Humphrey, and the banishment and death of the Duke of Suffolk, and the tragical end of the proud Cardinal of Winchester, with the notable rebellion of Jack Cade and the Duke of York's first claim unto the crown. If the playbills and cryers said similar things, you'd know exactly what you were getting. So, in answer to your question, I don't think the audience simply went to see "a new play about Henry VI"; I think they went to see a play that had been marketed as something like "A new play of Henry VI, with the funeral of the brave king Henry V, and the heroic exploits of the great Lord Talbot against the French, with the defeat of the mad French demon-conjuring witch named Joan of Arc and the wooing of the beautiful Lady Margaret". I'd go see that.

    2. Followup: the promised mini-essay:

  3. I agree with you about Stern's book. It's amazing to think how marketing was such a developed practice 400 years ago....
    And of course novelty is prized... but would yet another play about H VI really be seen as novel? Seems to me there must be some other element there.... I do suspect that the price was different on opening night.
    Thank you for your kind response.

    1. Well, perhaps it's more accurate to say that it's about balancing novelty with familiarity, i.e. new plays about already popular characters. If you look at the top 10 films of last year, 7 of them are new stories (novelty) about pre-existing characters or ideas (familiarity) - Star Wars 7, Jurassic World, Avengers 2, Furious 7, Minions, Hunger Games 3B, Cinderella. This seems a good analogy for audiences flocking to see yet another Henry VI play.

      I'm not saying you're wrong though - the main thing I'm learning from this project is how little we know!

  4. Hi David. Huge admiration for this blog. Why doesn't "xvj" mean sixteen shillings?