I feel the need to preface my adventures with the note that I love this play. I read it for the first time this past fall as a part of my Gateway Shakespeare class. It was a play that would not be a part of our class sessions but was in the course reading. So, at the end of my first semester, my reading group sat down one cold winter evening to read a relatively obscure (to us) history play. Our expectations were tentatively optimistic as we had spent the past few months seeing Henry IV, Part Two at the Blackfriars Playhouse and had come to love history plays in general for it. We read through the play in about two hours, and once we had finished, I was completely elated. I talked about the play at length and went home spouting newfound dreams of some day playing Queen Margaret in my own fantasy performance of Henry VI, Part Three. Any woman who is willing to get her hands dirty (or bloody) to defend her husband’s crown and her son’s position is pretty amazing in my book. Needless to say, I was rather excited to have the opportunity to work in depth with this text and especially to create a few things that could help students realize the greatness in there, too.
Before the Winter Teacher Seminar began on February 4th, I was given the assignment to put together a few of the sections of an abbreviated study guide a teacher had requested from the Academic Resources branch of the ASC’s Education Department. So amidst my Teacher Seminar weekend I reread the play to find quotes explaining each of the characters for the “Who’s Who” section of the traditionally formatted study guide. I proceeded to engage in a specific type of close reading that I have come to call embedded exposition. I read the play again to myself in search of quotes like: “O tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide!” (spoken by York in reference to Queen Margaret in 1.4) to help explain each of the characters using only the text. Shakespeare’s original actors could only build their characters based upon what was said within the text, and through recognizing these moments we can learn how the original actors learned about their characters. For example, in the first act, Margaret’s husband, King Henry VI, introduces her first entrance by saying he will “steal away” to avoid her anger. Through this first entrance we as readers can sense her power even without an actress performing the lines with venom in her voice and blood on her hands. The text expands upon Margaret’s character more when she later taunts York, the attempted usurper, with a rag soaked in his child’s blood, before she stabs him to death and orders his severed head displayed for the town. Upon rereading it I recalled everything about the play that I had loved the first time around and then found so much more. I proceeded to read the entire play in search of embedded exposition and learned a great deal about each of the characters and their relationship. I also created a flowchart to help visually represent how all of these people were related to one another. The flowchart was exciting for multiple reasons, but mostly because it was my first attempt at such a diagram, and it really helped to see who connected to whom in the play. To prove my successful creation and hopefully to explain how those loyal to the House of York relate to one another, here is a section of my flow chart:
My 3 Henry VI week, progressed with an observation of an Actors’ Renaissance Season rehearsal. I sat in the back of the playhouse and watched in awe as a group of actors worked through scenes from cue scripts. The questions the actors asked one another about the text made me realize some of the important approaches to the play, and I was able to use their questions to build lessons. I thought if these were the ways the actors got into an understanding of the play, then they could be the best ways for students to follow suit. After observing the rehearsal and talking with a high school teacher who is working with the play at the moment, I began to put together some lessons that would take the ASC actors’ approach to the text and apply it to how a teacher presents the play. After a few days of reading, rereading and watching rehearsals I put together a few activities for teachers to use when working with this play and presented them to the graduate program’s Shakespeare Pedagogy class and discovered there is so much within this play to teach and pick apart and relish.
For example, the activity below came from the discussion while blocking Act One, scene two of Henry VI, Part Three on the first day of rehearsal. John Harrell (Edward), Benjamin Curns (Richard) and Jeremy West (York) were discussing how to move around the stage to clarify their dialogue and character relationships. Through their discussion, they brought up the element of familial competition within the brothers. After they staged the scene, the movements effectively revealed the sense of competition and dominance within the House of York at the beginning of the play. I created an activity that would emulate that same conversation with students so they could clarify for themselves what kind of family the Yorks are. Below is an effective lesson in exposition based off of the ARS rehearsal process I observed.
A. This activity will require three student speakers and everyone’s participation.During the Teacher Seminar one of the educators in attendance shared he was currently teaching Henry VI, Part Three to his high school class in Alexandria, Virginia. As he revealed his plans for the play and his students reactions I noticed how excited the staff and actors of the American Shakespeare Center were about it. I realized, over that weekend that the love for this play expands throughout our Shakespeare community and everyone wants to teach the next generation to love it just as much.
Characters involved in the scene:
York: Richard, Plantagenet, Duke of York, Rival to the throne of Henry VI
Edward, Later Duke of York and King Edward IV: Son and Heir to York
Richard, Duke of Gloucester: Son of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York
Montague: Marquis of the Divided House of Neville, Loyal to the House of York
Context: At the opening of 1.1 the sons of York compete with feats of brutality through displays of bloody swords and severed heads for the recognition of the father, York. The scene incorporates the court of King Henry with the entrances at line 50, King Henry VI is threatened by York’s forces and agrees to acquiesce to York’s advances with the caveat, “Let me for this my lifetime reign as king.” The scene concludes with reactions and outrage against King Henry’s choice of York as his successor. After the deal has been set, York and his sons withdraw to private contemplation. They rejoin us on stage with the previous scene’s events fresh in their minds.
Focus: The previous scene depicted each of the York sons competing for command of the room and recognition from their father. Read the scene below to see where each of the men uses their words to take command of the situation.
Directions for the class: As you read through the scene place a star next to any line in which one of the men seems to assert his power over the other with their words. Make a note of where each of the men should sit below. Watch how the scene plays out and see if you made the same choices as the actors.
Directions for the actors: There will be enough seats for each of you. As you enter please decide which seat your character deserves and take it (you may discuss this with one another before you sit but if you feel like there is a definite seat you deserve, take it). Where should the father sit? Which son should sit closest? Where should Montague sit? After you have taken your seats begin reading your lines aloud to the class. Try to highlight when you are taking command of the room with your words with assertive vocal choices. The first time you take command, put down the other men or simply assert yourself stand up. Take a step forward every time your character asserts him, chastises or cuts off another character or steals focus from the rest of the group.
Act One. SCENE II. Sandal Castle.
Enter RICHARD, EDWARD, and MONTAGUE
Brother, though I be youngest, give me leave.
No, I can better play the orator.
But I have reasons strong and forcible.
Why, how now, sons and brother! at a strife?
What is your quarrel? how began it first?
No quarrel, but a slight contention.
About that which concerns your grace and us;
The crown of England, father, which is yours.
Mine boy? not till King Henry be dead.
Your right depends not on his life or death.
Now you are heir, therefore enjoy it now:
By giving the house of Lancaster leave to breathe,
It will outrun you, father, in the end.
I took an oath that he should quietly reign.
But for a kingdom any oath may be broken:
I would break a thousand oaths to reign one year.
No; God forbid your grace should be forsworn.
I shall be, if I claim by open war.
I'll prove the contrary, if you'll hear me speak.
Thou canst not, son; it is impossible.
An oath is of no moment, being not took
Before a true and lawful magistrate,
That hath authority over him that swears:
Henry had none, but did usurp the place;
Then, seeing 'twas he that made you to depose,
Your oath, my lord, is vain and frivolous.
Therefore, to arms! And, father, do but think
How sweet a thing it is to wear a crown;
Within whose circuit is Elysium
And all that poets feign of bliss and joy.
Why do we finger thus? I cannot rest
Until the white rose that I wear be dyed
Even in the lukewarm blood of Henry's heart.
Richard, enough; I will be king, or die.
Enter a Messenger
But, stay: what news? Why comest thou in such post?
The queen with all the northern earls and lords
Intend here to besiege you in your castle:
She is hard by with twenty thousand men;
And therefore fortify your hold, my lord.
The above activity would take up about 10-15 minutes of class time but has countless benefits for students interacting with a Shakespeare history play, a few of them are:
1. Students get up on their feet with Shakespeare’s words. The American Shakespeare Center treats every play as if it is a play first and a piece of literature second. Acknowledging the play’s true form helps students grasp the meanings behind the words in their most viable form.
2. Every student is involved in the same choices the American Shakespeare Center actors had to make. These are relevant and practical questions that have accessible answers students can find with the text and their classmates.
I have come to the conclusion that every Shakespeare class should include a few days working with Henry VI, Part Three. I believe it is the best way to introduce students to the idea that history plays are not history lessons, but that they are great plots of the rises and falls of great men and women of England. This play includes the rise of one of the most infamous villains of Shakespeare, Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later King Richard III) and the fall of one of the most compelling female powerhouses in all of Shakespeare, Queen Margaret. Beyond these two characters, this play includes some amazing battles, fascinating court scenes and a glimpse into the England of the War of the Roses. This play is more than just a story of a King -- in fact the King is one of the least compelling characters you get to meet. Instead, Henry VI, Part Three is an intense and exhilarating glimpse into the world of vengeance, violence and the power of will. If you ever need a great Shakespeare read, take a few hours and explore this world. Or better yet, come down to the Blackfriars Playhouse and see the Actors’ Renaissance Season’s production, opening February 24th. I only saw a few hours of rehearsal, and I cannot wait for opening night! I hope the teachers out there consider adding this play, I hope every student gets to read Margaret, and I hope to see all of you at the Blackfriars for this amazing thrill-ride of a play!