King Henry the Sixth
Parts Two and Three: Henry and Margaret
Adapted by Scott Kaiser from William Shakespeare
Oregon Shakespeare Festival Production
Directors: Scott Kaiser and Libby Appel
Scenic Designer: William Bloodgood
Costume Designer: Deborah M. Dryden
Lighting Designer: Robert Peterson
When we think about “history,” we tend to recall our days in school, chewing indigestible strings of names, dates, battles, movements and “isms,” to be swallowed from a textbook, dutifully regurgitated, and quickly forgotten. But, as the philosopher Karl Popper once noted, what we learned by rote back in school and came to think of as “history” is by no means the history of mankind. It is the history of political power. And the history of political power is not about cold, lifeless facts—it’s about hot-blooded individuals. It’s about who wanted power, and what they did to get it; who had the power, and what they did to keep it. Viewed through this lens, Shakespeare’s three Henry Six plays are perhaps more properly called “power plays” than “history plays.”
For clearly, Shakespeare isn’t much interested in sticking to historical facts. Anyone who compares the dramatic action of the plays to the actual events of the Wars of the Roses will quickly discover how Shakespeare took extensive liberties with English history—skewing time, conflating characters, and conjuring up events that never happened. Shakespeare does this because he’s a dramatist, not a historian. He’s a man of the theatre telling a story about the relentless pursuit of political power by a handful of ruthlessly ambitious individuals —first through political intrique, then through malevolent bloodshed.
And Shakespeare never forgets, in telling this story, what makes that bloodshed so heinous, and therefore, so compelling: that all of those squabbling nobles wearing the red rose or the white—those Henrys and Edwards and Richards, those Mortimers, Lancasters, Beauforts, Somersets and Yorks—were related by blood. They were all Plantagenets. When we remember this, we see that Shakespeare’s three Henry Six plays depict more than a civil war. They show a malignant family feud that decimated an entire genealogical tree.
The first deep cut in that regal tree—the political power grab that
set all this bloodshed in motion—was the deposing of King Richard II
in 1399 by Henry Bolingbroke—his own cousin. This began nearly
a hundred years of familicide—a conflict that set not only cousin
against cousin, but father against son, husband against wife, and brother
against brother, in deadly hate the one against the other.
The killing did not end until Henry Tudor, (also a distant cousin), ascended the throne in 1485, after the fall of Richard III at the battle of Bosworth. By that time, the houses of York and Lancaster had completely consumed themselves in their own hatred and ambition, and, their power utterly lost, “history” moved forward without them.