Editing Shakespeare’s Henry VI
Research Assistant Hailey Bachrach shares how the team edited Shakespeare’s three Henry VI plays into one exciting story
How do you slim three plays down to one? We went through a variety of configurations when trying to work out how best to put Shakespeare’s three Henry VI plays on in a version that was possible to perform in one sitting and still told a rich and exciting story.
The three Henry VI plays are among Shakespeare’s most rarely performed, partly because they are almost never done alone. Productions are either all three plays, or adaptations like ours that condense them into one or two. Relatively recent projects like John Barton’s The Wars of the Roses and Propeller’s Rose Rage are two examples of this style, each guided by their own aesthetics. Another common trend is adaptations, like Jeanie O’Hare’s Queen Margaret and Elizabeth Shafer and Philippa Kelly’s Margaret of Anjou, which make Henry’s wife Margaret, the only character to survive all three plays and in Richard III, the centre of the story.
We wanted to find our own version, guided by our own interests and ideas… and our first major decision was not to include Henry VI, Part 1. The most famous plots in Part 1 concern the English struggles to hold France, especially after the rise of an unexpectedly powerful French ally: a peasant girl named Joan, who claims to have been sent by God to vanquish the English. Shakespeare’s Joan is an unexpected take on the legendary warrior, depicting her from a resolutely English perspective as a temptress and a witch. The play also sets up some of the conflicts to come in later plays, including a scene of plucking red and white roses (the emblems of the rival houses of Lancaster and York), and another where the future Duke of York learns about his family’s claim to the throne. All exciting and essential stuff… sort of.
‘Shakespeare’s Joan is an unexpected take on the legendary warrior, depicting her from a resolutely English perspective as a temptress and a witch’
Despite its title Henry VI, Part 1 was almost certainly not the first Henry VI play to be written. It’s more like an after-the-fact Hollywood prequel than the play meant to kick off the new franchise. So, many of the ideas it sets up don’t actually connect as smoothly to the other two plays as we expected them to. As we worked through various drafts, we found that these early scenes felt like preamble. The real action seemed to kick in the moment we arrived at the first scene of Part 2 – and the abbreviated version of Joan we’d have had room for didn’t quite feel connected to that action.
So how do you slim two plays down to one? Without Part 1, we could focus fully on the Wars of the Roses – the conflict between York and Lancaster – as the narrative heart of the play. Although many adaptations have centred the story around Margaret, this didn’t feel quite right, for all that she plays a major role. Nor did shaping it around the titular King Henry. In fact, no single character was able to seize control of the narrative in a way that made them the obvious protagonist… which we realised might be the point.
‘Without Part 1, we could focus fully on the Wars of the Roses – the conflict between York and Lancaster – as the narrative heart of the play’
Many scholars now believe that all three Henry VI plays were collaborative efforts, with Shakespeare writing alongside colleagues that might have included Thomas Nashe or even Christopher Marlowe. Collaboration was incredibly common in the early modern period, much more so than has been traditionally recognised, and we shouldn’t presume that a co-written play would be in any way disjointed or chaotic. But the sense of many voices working together – many playwrights, each with their own tendencies and style; many characters determined to prove that they are the centre of the play and always falling short; even our two directors in the room – became the guiding principle for our adaptation. It feels in keeping with the spirit of the ensemble itself, a collaborative and exploratory process that aims to give everyone in the room a voice in shaping the story.