The Problem of Catholicism in the Henry VI Plays

By Glenn C. Arbery


Dr. Glenn C. Arbery is President of Wyoming Catholic College, where he previously served as Dean and Associate Professor of Humanities. He has taught at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, the University of Dallas, and at Assumption College where he was d’Alzon Professor of Liberal Arts. He is the author of Why Literature Matters (2001) and the editor of two volumes, The Tragic Abyss (2004), and The Southern Critics: An Anthology (2010). This essay is adapted from an address given at the Portsmouth Institute’s 2012 summer conference, The Catholic Shakespeare.


At my son’s graduation from college, I met a politics professor of his who said he would be teaching a course on tyranny. Among the texts he mentioned was Shakespeare’s Richard III. He said that he was taking a different tack with it. Richard himself, he told me, was a caricature of the Machiavellian villain, an overblown figure out of a weird, medieval world he found it impossible to take seriously. The real Machiavellian was Richmond, who understood how to seem convincingly religious whereas no one would ever believe any display of Richard’s piety. The Henry VI plays were already on my mind, and his opinion about the weirdness of Richard made me wonder if he had read the earlier plays of the tetralogy. If he thought the character of Richard was overwrought, what about the demonic Joan of Arc in Henry VI, Part One, or the ruffian Jack Cade in Part Two, who claims to be the heir to the throne through the Mortimer line and who shouts to his illiterate followers, “my mouth shall be the Parliament of England” (2 Henry VI, IV.7.13-14)?1 What about Clifford and Margaret, who sop a handkerchief with the blood of York’s murdered young son Rutland and taunt York with it before they stab him to death? When I gingerly asked the professor if he had read the Henry VI plays, he admitted he had not. He looked mildly embarrassed, but only mildly.

His presumption, widely shared, is that it is legitimate to interpret Richard III without even reading the three plays that precede it, even though Richard figures prominently in both the second and third parts of the first tetralogy. The Henry VI plays tend to scare away readers because of their critical reputation as early efforts of Shakespeare’s, often suspected of being written in part by other hands (especially the first one). Why should anyone who admires the sublimities of King Lear and The Winter’s Tale submit to the disillusionment of reading his apprentice efforts before he became the poet we know? Besides, Henry VI himself has the reputation of being the dithering, pious weakling who lost everything his great father won in France. And there are three plays about him? It seems an extravagant expenditure of effort on an unpromising subject matter, despite the Wars of the Roses raging around him. For many readers, Shakespeare as a writer of history plays first emerges with Richard III. But without the Henry VI plays, Richard III necessarily has the same severely abridged interpretive framework that Henry V would have without Richard II and Henry IV, Parts One and Two. I want to second what Homer Swander wrote in an essay on a groundbreaking Royal Shakespeare Company production of the uncut Henry VI plays in 1977 and 1978: “As the trilogy ends, everything … that has served the unity of the [plays] creates a powerful drive toward Part Four, Richard III, invoking it in our minds and drastically altering any view we may have of it as a play standing on its own, as Shakespeare’s first ‘successful’ history play” (Swander 161).

The Henry VI plays are important in their own right, but they also form their coherence—given the fifty-year mare’s nest of English history they dramatize—on the character of Henry VI, perhaps the most unambiguously religious Catholic in Shakespeare’s canon. He is the one character whose action, including the fact of his death, most ties together all four parts together on a symbolic level. At the beginning of Henry VI, Part I, he is an infant who becomes king and inherits the enormous administrative problem of France when his famous father dies; in the middle plays, he is the pious man and ineffectual peacemaker, fooled in his marriage, weakened in the eyes of others by his indifference to France, and conscience-stricken about his title to the throne; well before the end of the trilogy, he is deposed, but Shakespeare does not entitle the third play Edward IV. He ends it with the symbolic density of Henry’s death and the peculiar levity of Edward’s court as Richard, Duke of Gloucester, lays down his plots. Henry’s symbolism carries over into Richard III, where he appears as the sacred corpse, whose wounds miraculously bleed again in Richard’s presence.

The misfortune and the profundity of Henry VI as Shakespeare presents him have a great deal to say about the settlement with Catholicism, so to speak, that he makes as a dramatist. There were obvious reasons that a playwright in Elizabethan England could not declare his Catholicism unambiguously, but in the Henry VI plays, we face certain specific problems that have suggested actual hostility to it. At the very least, they require interpretation. Peter Milward in Shakespeare the Papist mentions the shocking treatment of Joan of Arc, the contempt of the admirable Duke of Gloucester for John Beaufort, first bishop and later cardinal of Winchester, Margaret’s scornful inventory of Henry’s piety, and the exposure of a false miracle (Milward 30-34). What I call the problem of Catholicism in the Henry VI plays stems from the ambiguities surrounding Henry, ambiguities that reveal Shakespeare investigating what happens to the traditional Catholicism of England when legitimacy is in question and the realm is overwhelmed by political ambition, not only in politics but also within the church. By traditional Catholicism I mean that of a society, in Donald Davidson’s words, “stable, religious, more rural than urban, and politically conservative” (Davidson 83), a description that typified most of England before Henry VIII. It is to be distinguished from ecclesiastical politics in the all too worldly dimensions excoriated by Dante.

What evidence is there, for better or for worse, that Henry VI is unambiguously a traditional Catholic? His authentic attempt to act as a mere Christian (in C.S. Lewis’s sense) is remarkable enough in itself. For example, his first words in the trilogy are an attempt to reconcile his uncles of Gloucester and Winchester: “I would prevail, if prayers might prevail,/To join your hearts in love and amity” (1 Henry VI, III.1.68-69). He acts the role of peacemaker repeatedly, in fact. In commenting later in the same play on a proposed truce with France, he tells Gloucester, “I always thought/It was both impious and unnatural/That such immanity and bloody strife/Should reign among professors of one faith” (V.1.11-14). In the next play, he refuses to judge the soul of Winchester, despite his horrendous death; he genuinely regrets the death of York, his worst enemy, in the third play, and he witnesses with grief the dire effects of civil war, the father killing his son and the son his father. But the specifics that make him particularly identifiable with the old faith come from the woman he marries, Margaret of Anjou. In a speech not long after her marriage to Henry, she accuses Suffolk of misleading her:

Is this the government of Britain’s isle,
And this the royalty of Albion’s king?
What, shall King Henry be a pupil still
Under the surly Gloucester’s governance?
Am I a queen in title and in style,
And must be made a subject to a duke?
I tell thee, Pole, when in the city Tours
Thou rann’st atilt in honor of my love
And stol’st away the ladies’ hearts of France,
I thought King Henry had resembled thee
In courage, courtship and proportion.
But all his mind is bent to holiness,
To number Ave Maries on his beads.
His champions are the prophets and apostles,
His weapons holy saws of sacred writ,
His study is his tiltyard, and his loves
Are brazen images of canonizèd saints.
I would the college of the cardinals
Would choose him pope, and carry him to Rome,
And set the triple crown upon his head—
That were a state fit for his holiness. (2 Henry VI, I.3.47-67)

Margaret’s speech establishes Henry as not only of the old faith but ardently so: “all his mind is bent to holiness,” and his practices include many specifically rejected in the Thirty-nine Articles established under Elizabeth. Article 22 reads as follows: “The Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, worshipping and adoration as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture; but rather repugnant to the word of God” (Articles). Henry’s loves “are brazen images of canonized saints.” This description is so unambiguous that Shakespeare could not escape censure if Henry seemed praiseworthy; indeed, the speech has to be delivered in the most scornful way. Margaret’s unmistakable preference for the spirited, knightly Suffolk and her tone of contempt for her milquetoast bookworm of a Catholic husband seem calculated, on Shakespeare’s part, to convince the audience of Henry’s complete unworthiness to be an English king. What do bully English kings (or queens) have to do with popes or with the old faith?

On the other hand, Margaret establishes herself as so thoroughly toxic that her scorn—I think of Goneril’s scorn for Albany—might be the best evidence for Henry’s worthiness.

Shakespeare uses the word holiness only thirteen times in his complete works, most often as a title, “his holiness,” to describe the pope, and two of those thirteen uses come in this speech (Concordance). And what exactly is Margaret saying to Suffolk? Not that Henry should have been a monk or a priest, but that he should be pope, “a state fit for his holiness.” It’s a complicated thing to tell her lover Suffolk, for her lover he certainly is. She’s mocking Henry for being more Catholic than the pope. But she’s also saying, with a certain wifely pride, that he may not be much of a king, but he’s at least remarkable. The church would do well to elect him pope. And somewhere down in her mockery, she’s also admitting to Suffolk that—much as she might find his piety distasteful, much as she prefers her exciting knight—Henry has an undeniable spiritual importance.

But if Henry is such a good Catholic, we may well ask, what is he doing marrying Margaret in the first place? He falls in love with her entirely from Suffolk’s description, and Suffolk can praise her convincingly because he is in love with her himself. He tells Henry that his words still fall short and that her perfections, if he had “sufficient skill to utter them,/Would make a volume of enticing lines,/Able to ravish any dull conceit” (1 Henry VI, V.7.14-16). He paints a Margaret not only beautiful but possessing “humble lowliness of mind” (18) and willing to obey Henry’s “virtuous chaste intents” (20). More might be said, but what comes from this scene, unfortunately or not, is an impression of young Henry as inexperienced and credulous, just as easily manipulated as Suffolk imagined when he first wooed Margaret for his own ends. His credulity tends to offset the impression of his spiritual weight. Not only does Henry break off a politically advantageous engagement with the daughter of the Earl of Armagnac to marry Margaret, but he gives Suffolk the right to gather the tenth part of their produce or profits from the people—an exorbitant tax—just for Suffolk’s expenses in bringing her to England.

At the beginning of Henry VI, Part Two, the full dimensions of the bargain become clear. The court learns that, at Suffolk’s urging, Henry has agreed to give Maine and Anjou back to the French as part of the marriage agreement. “Anjou and Maine!” Warwick cries. “Myself did win them both” (2 Henry VI, I.1.116). The loss of these lands, for which English soldiers had fought and died, is offset by nothing except the person of Margaret herself, since she brings no dowry to enrich the English treasury. In fact, she brings Henry less than nothing. She makes him a cuckold, while Henry ignorantly makes Suffolk a duke with great power at the court and in Parliament.

To say the least, Henry’s traditional Catholicism cannot hold its own in the Machiavellian world of court power; his faith has the strength of its sincerity, but even with Gloucester as his protector, he can be swayed by a man like Suffolk, and when Gloucester himself falls victim to the schemes of others, Henry has no chance. But let me put Henry’s entanglement with Margaret in a larger Catholic context. I have mentioned Shakespeare’s Joan of Arc, and certainly I am tempted to accept the suggestion of the commentator in 1917 who confidently ascribed the “outrageous treatment” of Joan at the end of Henry VI, Part One, to the revisions of Robert Greene. But there the demonic Joan stands from the time of the First Folio, and what makes her hard to dismiss is her juxtaposition to Margaret.

Before the battle of Angiers, Joan of Arc invokes the fiends or familiar spirits who supply her with aid, but they turn aside and abandon her, even though she offers them blood sacrifice. “Then take my soul, my body, soul and all,” she cries, “Before that England give the French the foil” (1 Henry VI, V.3.22-23). They offer her no help to her, though they might take her up on her offer. Margaret of Anjou first appears in the very next scene, which balances the first appearance of Joan early in the play. Suffolk, smitten with her, woos her for himself, but since he is already married (inconveniently enough), he conceives the idea of marrying her to the young Henry VI instead and gaining power over the king through her. The very next scene is Joan’s final one in the play—and it is an ugly scene indeed. Immediately following it is the scene in which Suffolk overwhelms Henry with praise of Margaret of Anjou.

Whatever one speculates about the grotesquely slanderous depiction of Joan, it is important to see that Shakespeare and no one but Shakespeare closely juxtaposes her to Margaret, who remains a crucial character all the way into Richard III. Even from the outset, Margaret seems to embody Joan’s curse. She damages the English as much as Joan ever did on the battlefield. When Henry gives Maine and Anjou back to France as part of her wedding settlement, it is as though Margaret had replaced Joan to give French interests—not to say Joan’s fiends—a new foothold in the bosom of the English court. Margaret’s marriage to Henry undercuts him in every way, especially since she appears to cuckold him before she ever meets him. When Suffolk announces at the beginning of Part Two that he has married Margaret as Henry’s proxy—apparently an accepted practice in the day—I am afraid that his speech is laced with the irony of being literal. Henry’s genuine Catholic piety plays into Suffolk’s hands.

Nevertheless, Henry’s holiness continues to shine through, however ambiguously. He is a man whom God has given the title everyone else covets, but who does not want it himself. According to his early biographer and confessor John Blacman, the historical Henry avoided the trappings of kingship whenever he could, and when custom demanded that he wear the crown, he “atoned with a hair shirt next to his skin” (Cheetham 135). Shakespeare gives us a portrait of a reluctant prince who prefers his study to his throne. The spirited York dismisses Henry as “bookish,” and in this respect, Henry anticipates other such figures later in the Shakespearean canon—Hamlet, for example, and certainly Prospero, who lost his own dukedom by “neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated/To closeness and the bettering of my mind.” Especially under the years of Gloucester’s protectorate, Henry can pursue his studies freely, since his protector proves himself to be a man of loyalty and genuine political integrity.

But here another troubling matter arises in assessing Shakespeare’s relation to Catholicism. The issue goes back to the very beginning of the first play of the trilogy, where Gloucester establishes himself as a kind of skeptic when it comes to the relation between effective kingship and the church. Gloucester’s greatest enemy at court (at least until Margaret arrives) is Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, who was born the illegitimate son of John of Gaunt and is now not only a powerful clergyman but a member of the royal house. As his relatives mourn for the dead Henry V in the opening lines of Act I, Winchester says, “The battles of the Lord of hosts he fought:/The church’s prayers made him so prosperous,” and Gloucester reacts with violent scorn:

The church? Where is it? Had not churchmen prayed,
His thread of life had not so soon decayed.
None do you like but an effeminate prince,
Whom like a schoolboy you may overawe. (1 Henry VI, I.1.)

From the perspective of the later plays, or simply from Henry VI’s reputation, Shakespeare certainly intends the irony to be felt, because the infant king ironically grows up to be exactly the kind of prince that Gloucester dreads. (Remember that Margaret calls him “a pupil still/Under the surly Gloucester’s governance.”) Winchester in turn accuses Gloucester of wanting to “command the prince and realm” (38) as protector. Bedford breaks up the argument, but not before Gloucester snaps, “Name not religion, for thou lov’st the flesh,/And ne’er throughout the year to church thou go’st/Except it be to pray against thy foes” (41-43).

Gloucester seems to have an anticlerical reflex focused on Winchester. Perhaps he does not scorn religion per se, as Margaret seems to do, but he clearly thinks that the church is out of bounds when it meddles in politics. Gloucester means to stop Winchester, despite his office:

Priest, beware your beard.
I mean to tug it and to cuff you soundly:
Under my feet I’ll stamp thy bishop’s miter.
In spite of pope, or dignities of church,
Here by the cheeks I’ll drag thee up and down. (I.4.46-50)

His savage indignation overrides decorous respect for the church. When Winchester says Gloucester will answer this insult before the pope, Gloucester answers, “Winchester goose! I cry, ‘A rope! A rope!’” A Winchester goose, slang for venereal disease, is an allusion to the historical fact that Beaufort as Cardinal of Winchester received revenues from whorehouses licensed in Southwark; “a rope” was an expression of derision suggesting that Beaufort deserved hanging.

His suspicions about the vices of Winchester are amply borne out in the first two parts of the tetralogy. Later in Henry VI, Part One, Winchester, who has just been named a cardinal, stops a papal legate:

Stay, my lord legate: you shall first receive
The sum of money which I promisèd
Should be delivered to his holiness
For clothing me in these grave ornaments. (1 Henry VI, V.1.51-54)

Not only does he buy his office, a purchase that also puts “his holiness” the pope into a quite unflattering light, but he intends to use his new office to make his power equal to Gloucester’s. For that reason, it’s difficult to take Gloucester’s criticisms of Beaufort as a slander on traditional Catholicism per se: the Cardinal of Winchester hides behind “dignities of church” and ecclesiastical politics for his own most worldly ends. Gloucester is no more irreligious in this respect than Dante, who does not hesitate to criticize popes if they sell church offices; in fact, he shows them being wedged upside down in hell. Like Dante, Gloucester knows that the offices themselves deserve respect: as he tells Winchester, “Thou art reverent/Touching thy spiritual function, not thy life.” He repeatedly demonstrates his own gruff but admirable integrity. He and Henry have a fundamental complementarity, so much so that it is possible to see in Gloucester a dimension of character that Henry has not assumed for himself. He has not had to assume it. Because he has Gloucester, Henry can be the man of holiness, the peacemaker who prefers to withdraw from the world of strife, and Gloucester can be the forceful man of integrity in the world of politics, though one almost as helpless as Henry, it turns out, against the increasingly subtle wiles—not to say Machiavellian tactics—of men and women who put worldly power above any other consideration.

Unfortunately, Henry needs a protector, and perhaps his reliance on Gloucester undercuts the development of his own prudence. As his manipulation by Suffolk shows, he lacks political understanding, and he can be easily swayed by appeals to his pity or his piety. In the most striking of such appeals, another instance in which Shakespeare’s attitude toward Catholicism seems to be in question, a townsman of St. Alban’s confronts Henry, claiming that a miracle has taken place: “a blind man at Saint Alban’s shrine,/Within this half-hour, hath received his sight;/A man that ne’er saw in his life before” (2 Henry VI, II.1.66-68). Henry’s first response, even before the man has been presented to him by the Mayor of St. Alban’s, is to rejoice: “Now, God be praised, that to believing souls/Gives light in darkness, comfort in despair!” (69-70). In the ensuing scene, however, Gloucester questions the man closely, and within a few exchanges, unravels the man’s story and proves him to be “the lyingest knave in Christendom.” Gloucester then also proves the man’s claim of lameness to be equally false. The fellow runs away as soon as he feels the first lash of the whip. Henry witnesses the man’s perfidy and says, “O God, seest Thou this, and bearest so long?” Margaret’s rejoinder is clearly a rebuke: “It made me laugh to see the villain run.” The others in attendance, even the Cardinal, seem inured to this kind of deception. They jokingly ascribe a “miracle” to Gloucester since he has made the lame walk. Only Henry remains shaken by the fraud. As Peter Milward points out, this exposure of a false miracle appears to underscore Protestant claims about the various shrines of traditional English Catholicism, but the story is first told in St. Thomas More’s A Dialogue Concerning Heresies, an argument against the Protestant William Tyndale (Milward 33). More argues that the exposure of false miracles speaks well of the validity of true ones. The Protestant John Foxe, however, also retells the story in Acts and Monuments (Row-Heyveld).

It is easy to dwell on Henry’s failures. As a king, the man is a disaster. He fails Gloucester when his protector most needs protection. His only forceful act as king is his banishment of Suffolk, whom he suspects of killing Gloucester and knows to be cuckolding him. But the deaths of Suffolk and Winchester do not remove his problems so much as they clear the way for Richard Plantagenet, whom Henry himself first empowers by making him Duke of York. He proves completely ineffectual against York’s intrigues, and by the end of Part Two, he has lost the battle of St. Alban’s (a return to the site of the false miracle, by the way). At the beginning of Part Three, he doubts his own title to the throne and bargains with the victorious York: “Let me for this my life-time reign as king.” Historically, Parliament made the suggestion, and Holinshed does not seem ambiguous on the point. But Shakespeare has it come directly from Henry himself. York agrees, on the condition that the crown will then go to him and to his heir, and Henry replies, “I am content: Richard Plantagenet, /Enjoy the kingdom after my decease” (3 Henry VI, I.175-76). Henry’s own strongest supporters turn from him in disgust. Clifford exclaims, “What wrong is this unto the prince your son!” Indeed. On the other hand, there is ample reason for Henry to doubt, as we have seen, that Margaret’s son Edward is in fact Henry’s son at all. But Edward is definitely Margaret’s, and she is so incensed that she decides to lead an army against York herself—a military turn that seals her thematic connection to Joan of Arc and that might have some bearing on another prominent woman in a traditionally male role. Despite Margaret’s early victories, including the death of York, York’s sons defeat Margaret and Clifford at Towton. During the crucial battle, Henry wanders off by himself. Margaret and Clifford have told him the troops will fight better without him.

But just here, when he is at his most ineffectual and ridiculous, he begins to assume his real importance. He has a long meditation about what a happy life it would be if he were an ordinary shepherd, “no better than a homely swain.” Despite the pastoral escapism and the horrendous context, it seems to be Henry’s truest note, and I have no doubt that it can be played to telling effect. “Ah, what a life were this! how sweet! how lovely!” Henry declares. The absurdity of vying for the crown takes on a new aspect. And strangely, this very commentary also begins to speak to the condition of the traditional church in England beset by the demands of politics:

Gives not the hawthorn-bush a sweeter shade
To shepherds looking on their silly sheep,
Than doth a rich embroider’d canopy
To kings that fear their subjects’ treachery?

Shepherds, of course, are pastors, and the silly sheep their congregations. Biblically charged images of shepherd and sheep surround Henry, as we will see again in a moment. Why a hawthorn-bush? The most famous such bush was at Glastonbury, site of a famous abbey, where the hawthorn was supposed to have sprung from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea. Isn’t this traditional tree, not to mention the traditional stories, pilgrimages, and pieties associated with it, a sweeter shade that the king’s embroidered canopy? There is unquestionably on Henry’s part—and arguably on Shakespeare’s—a longing for this life of traditional devotion. It does not feel coincidental than an extended meditation on hours immediately precedes it. It also does not feel coincidental that this meditation is followed by scenes of the horrors of civil war: a father unknowingly killing his son, and a son in the same way killing his father. No one else in the world of these plays has the kind of sorrowful perspective, both inside and outside of these events, that Henry has.

The battle lost, he flees to Scotland, and from Scotland he steals into the north of England. In power, Henry always seems hapless and embarrassing, especially when events put him back on the throne again, though, as a prophet, Henry predicts the high future of young Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, who will return at the end of Richard III to defeat the murderous usurper and assume the kingship; out of power, on the other hand, he takes on a bittersweet melancholy, as though he could be at home in the Forest of Arden passing the time with Jaques. But his prophetic authority also gives him a belated gravitas. Secretly and dangerously reentering England, he appears onstage with a prayer book. The powerful similarity to a returning Catholic priest—a Campion or a Persons—is unmistakable. Two hunters overhearing his soliloquy guess his identity. They capture him in a scene highly reminiscent of the capture of fugitive priests, and when they claim to be bound to Edward by oath, Henry questions them about the oath they took to him when he was king. “But, if thou be a king,” one of them asks him, “where is thy crown?” Henry answers,

My crown is in my heart, not on my head;
Not decked with diamonds and Indian stones,
Nor to be seen: my crown is called content:
A crown it is that seldom kings enjoy. (III.1.62-65)

The word content, of course, echoes what he says in making York his heir (“I am content”), but it also suggests his submission to God’s will, an attunement of one’s ambitions to the nature of circumstances, an inner self-rule. It anticipates by contrast the opening line of Richard III, when Richard speaks ironically of “the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this son of York.” As Henry tells his captors, though the subtleties no doubt escape them,

In God’s name, lead; your king’s name be obeyed;
And what God will, that let your king perform;
And what he will, I humbly yield unto. (III.1.98-100)

Thomas More might have said the thing, with the same distinction between God’s will and the king’s. If Henry longs to be a humble swain, this too is denied him: common men, as the plays repeatedly show us, are like sheep that follow whoever has the power.

Yet in the end, Henry himself is the shepherd who becomes the sheep, guileless sacrificial. Gloucester predicted as much in Part Two, when he was arrested for treason: “Thus is the shepherd beaten from thy side,/And wolves are gnarling who shall gnaw thee first.” In the Tower just before his death, Henry himself invokes this densely biblical imagery when he faces Richard (also Duke of Gloucester). The lieutenant protecting Henry leaves at Richard’s command, and Henry says, “So flies the reckless shepherd from the wolf;/So first the harmless sheep doth yield his fleece/And next his throat unto the butcher’s knife.” The passage invokes Isaiah 53:6-8, the victim afflicted “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter” and “stricken for the transgression” of his people. Henry’s ineptitude and distaste for power might reasonably be said to bring on the transgression of his people; that is, the horrors of the Wars of the Roses might have been avoided under stronger and more prudent rule. But in another interpretation, the unchosen task for which Henry proved himself so unfit was itself God’s will, and Henry’s noblest deed, in Shakespeare’s presentation of him, is to embody his people’s suffering and fearlessly die on their behalf, these sheep with their wavering loyalties. Everything about his piety evokes the old faith. His death feels like martyrdom, and even beyond death, he defies sober Protestant expectation: his corpse bleeds in the presence of Richard, his murderer. Holinshed soberly records the fact. Shakespeare repeats it, and, I suggest, gives it a larger symbolic resonance. No one challenges this miracle.

It is of course possible to interpret Richard III without reading the Henry VI plays, but in doing so, one loses, among many other things, this cardinal figure of the order that is passing away in England. In an essay from 1950 called “Why the Modern South Has a Great Literature,” the Southern poet and critic Donald Davidson makes a startling comparison between William Shakespeare and William Faulkner. The South in the early decades of the twentieth century, he argues, was a traditional society much like England’s in Shakespeare’s day: “A traditional society,” he writes, “is a society that is stable, religious, more rural than urban, and politically conservative. Family, blood-kinship, clanship, folk-ways, custom, community, in such a society, supply the needs that in a non-traditional or progressive society are supplied at great cost by artificial devices like training schools and government agencies.” Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars illustrates in detail what traditional Catholicism in England looked like before Henry’s reforms, as well as what had happened by the time of Shakespeare’s youth. Davidson’s point is that when major new forces disturb a traditional society, it can absorb up to a certain point what he calls (certainly with tongue in cheek) “modern improvements” without losing its character. At that point, when “the society is thrown a little out of balance but not yet completely off balance, the moment of self-consciousness arrives. Then a process begins that at first is enormously stimulating, but that, if it continues unchecked, may prove debilitating and destructive in the end.” As examples he cites “Greece in the fifth century B.C., Rome of the late republic, Italy in Dante’s time, England in the sixteenth century,” in each of which changes “threw them slightly out of balance without at first achieving cultural destruction” (Davidson 83-84).

Davidson includes Sophocles and Shakespeare among those whom the changes force “into an examination of their total inheritance that perhaps they would not otherwise have undertaken. They begin to compose literary works in which the whole metaphysic of the society suddenly takes dramatic or poetic or fictional form. Their glance is always retrospective, but their point of view is always thoroughly contemporary.” The moment of self-consciousness, he writes, “is the moment when a writer awakes to realize what he and his people truly are, in comparison with what they are being urged to become.” In the first tetralogy, I suggest, Shakespeare reached that self-consciousness for the first time. He saw what England truly was, how it had changed, for better and for worse. He saw most clearly of all what it was being urged to become, whether in its puritan or its Machiavellian forms, and his splendid resistance informed the whole of what he did thereafter.†