Shakespeare Quarterly 54.4 (2004) 449-451
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The Arden Shakespeare King Henry VI, Part 2. Edited by Ronald Knowles. London: Thomas Nelson, 1999. Illus. Pp. xvi + 491. $47.99 cloth, $13.99 paper.
The Arden Shakespeare King Henry VI, Part 3. Edited by John D. Cox and Eric Rasmussen. London: Thomas Nelson, 2001. Illus. Pp. xviii + 460. $47.99 cloth, $13.99 paper.
The most obvious difference between these new Arden editions of 2 and 3 Henry VI and the volumes edited by Andrew S. Cairncross for Arden's second series (1957-64) is the large amount of introductory material devoted to performance history. In the case of these plays, the difference is more than procedural: it documents a substantial change of critical opinion as the result of landmark performances of the Henry VI trilogy in the later twentieth century. As Roger Warren puts it in his recent Oxford edition of 2 Henry VI (not under review here), "in this blood-soaked century, .. . the uncompromising violence of these plays, from which earlier generations have shrunk, [has] clearly struck a chord with modern performers and audiences."1 Ronald Knowles is offering a similar evaluation (and no mere historical observation) when he says that if Shakespeare had died in 1592, "2 Henry VI would remain as the greatest history play in early modern drama and one of the most exciting and dynamic plays of the English Renaissance theatre" (2).
Both new Arden volumes chronicle this theatrical rediscovery in useful detail, from Douglas Seale's Birmingham Repertory versions (brought to the Old Vic in 1953 and 1957) and Peter Hall and John Barton's groundbreaking Wars of the Roses trilogy (RSC, 1963) to the versions of Terry Hands (RSC, 1977), Michael Bogdanov (English Shakespeare Company, 1987-89), Adrian Noble (RSC, 1988), and Michael Boyd (RSC, 2000). Knowles accords greater prominence to the role of television in this revival of the plays, but Rasmussen more successfully conveys the topicality of these productions, in which Thatcherism, the Falklands War, and Bosnia supplied points of reference. Neither of these Arden3 editions appeared in time to take account of Edward Hall's 2001 production at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury, where Michael Pavelka's set was based on an actual Victorian abbatoir at Smithfield meat market. [End Page 449]
Also changed since the earlier Henry VI Ardens by Cairncross is the picture of the plays' perspective on history and politics. Both Knowles's and Rasmussen's editions continue to credit E.M.W. Tillyard's influence by beginning their lengthy accounts of history and ideology with his seminal work, Shakespeare's History Plays (1944), but clearly much has altered since its publication. In an effort to introduce new opinion on the plays' depiction of disorder and political treachery, each editor draws on his own previous scholarship, Knowles by emphasizing the dialogical function of Cade's carnivalian rebellion in Part 2, Cox by emphasizing the conflict between "oppositional" (or spiritualized) and skeptical thinking visible in Part 3.
The most difficult questions for editors of these two plays are factual ones surrounding the date, auspices, and texts of all the Henry VI plays. If we knew how to answer these, we would know a great deal more about Shakespeare's early career. Connected with the Henry VI plays are the three earliest presumed allusions to Shakespeare's activity in the theater. Among the many questions arising from these allusions is the problem of dating created by the disparity between the appearance of Henslowe's diary reference to "harey the vj" (usually assumed to be 1 Henry VI,since it was Henslowe's practice to designate sequels as such) in February 1592 and Robert Greene's obvious familiarity with 3 Henry VI by the time of his death in August 1592.
Further complicating the picture is the problematic relationship between the Folio texts of 2 and 3 Henry VI (the primary copytexts for these and all previous editions) and two earlier texts, The First part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of York and Lancaster, published in...