Colorado Shakespeare Festival 2000
Shakespeare rarely allowed historical fact to interfere with the telling of a good tale. His history plays are rife with incidents of time compressed and events rearranged or simply invented for dramatic effect. Nevertheless, these plays capture the essence of the events he fictionalizes and frequently served to codify the public perception of the personalities involved, if not their actual roles in England’s complex medieval history.
In the three parts of Henry VI, Shakespeare deals with a span of more than fifty years during which England tumbled from the pinnacle of continental power into the chaos of civil war. When re-centering Shakespeare’s narrative around Queen Margaret, playwright Robert Potter shears away excess historical detail while retaining the epic sweep of the story. Margaret of Anjou emerges as the powerful, multi-faceted woman she must have been in life, becoming in the process a Shakespearean protagonist on a par with last season’s Henry V and next season’s Richard III.
History tells us Margaret married Henry VI after extended negotiations between England and France. Though there is no evidence to support the play’s contention that Henry exchanged key French provinces for Margaret’s hand, it is true that the rumor of such a quid pro quo was commonly believed at the time. Certainly Margaret became a convenient target for those nobles frustrated by Henry’s inability to hold onto the French possessions his father had conquered.
In the vacuum of Henry’s indecisiveness, however, Margaret’s influence increased. Following the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses, she headed the Lancastrian war effort. Margaret was not present for the defeat of the Yorkists at Wakefield, thus the celebrated “paper crown” scene in which she taunts the Duke of York before ordering his beheading is a Shakespearean invention. Yet Shakespeare’s account confirms history’s perception of Margaret as a ruthless adversary while powerfully dramatizing the moment of York’s defeat.
Edward, the new Duke of York, and his brother, Richard (who became Richard III), continued the war. Their eventual victory at Towton, sent the Queen and her son, the Prince of Wales, to France in search of allies and Henry to the tower, a prisoner of the victorious King Edward IV. Shakespeare compresses the events that brought Margaret and the young Prince into collusion with York’s long-time ally, Warwick, and brought Lancastrian armies to the decisive battle at Tewkesbury, but represents their essence accurately. History tells us the seventeen-year-old Prince probably died at Tewkesbury, silencing Lancastrian claims to the throne for a generation. Shakespeare takes one sensational contemporary account of the Prince, defiant to the last, dying at the hands of Edward’s dukes, and crafts it into a powerful scene with the additional embellishment of Margaret’s presence.
Margaret, as portrayed in the play, was indeed paraded through the streets of London by the victorious Yorkists. History does not tell us if she was as prescient in her dire predictions for the ascendant House of York as Shakespeare suggests.