Henry VI Part 3
Likely the most influential writer in all of English literature and certainly the most important playwright of the English Renaissance, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England. The son of a successful middle-class glove-maker, Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded no further. In 1582, he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590, he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright. Public and critical success quickly followed, and Shakespeare eventually became the most popular playwright in England and part owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558-1603) and James I (ruled 1603-1625); he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare's company the greatest possible compliment by endowing them with the status of king's players. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford and died in 1616 at the age of 52. At the time of Shakespeare's death, such luminaries as Ben Jonson hailed him as the apogee of Renaissance theatre.
Shakespeare's works were collected and printed in various editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century, his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare's life, but the paucity of surviving biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare's personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded from this fact that Shakespeare's plays in reality were written by someone else--Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidates--but the evidence for this claim is overwhelmingly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many scholars.
In the absence of definitive proof to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the 37 plays and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare's plays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature and culture ever after.
Henry 6, Part 3 was first published in 1595 in an octavo volume under the title The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York and the Good King Henry the Sixth. In 1623, a play longer by a thousand lines appeared in Shakespeare's First Folio under the title, The Third Part of Henry the Sixth. Some scholars believe that the first version was an early draft of the later folio edition, while other editors believe that the octavo version was reconstructed by memorization of actors and audience members, thus, explaining its shorter length. The folio version is thought to be based on Shakespeare's own manuscript before he gave it to his players, while the octavo version may have been based on a promptbook for the actual production. Therefore, the folio version may be longer and looser than the actual text presented on stage, while the octavo version may be shorter than what an audience witnessed. Most editors use the longer folio version with occasional additions from the octavo when the staging seems preferable.
3 Henry VI is a continuation of the depiction of the War of the Roses, begun in 1 Henry VI and 2 Henry VI. These plays follow the struggles between the Lancastrian descendants of Edward III, represented by the red rose, and his Yorkist descendants, who wore the white rose. This third installment ambitiously depicts many significant battles fought during that civil war, stretching between the Battle of Wakefield in 1460, when the Duke of York was killed, to the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, when Edward, York's eldest son, defeated the Lancasters.
Shakespeare probably made use of historical information gathered from contemporary chronicle histories of the 15th century and of the struggles between the Yorks and the Lancasters in the War of the Roses. Particularly he is thought to have used Raphael Holingshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587) and Edward Hall's Union of the Two Noble and Illustre [Illustrious] Families of Lancaster and York (1548). However, Shakespeare had to conflate or altar historical events so they would fit within a dramatic context.
One of Shakespeare's earliest plays, 3 Henry VI seems to have attracted attention for his boldness in adapting a complex historical narrative to the requirements of the theater. Some critics have seen 3 Henry VI as a flawed play, perhaps showing Shakespeare's weariness with the dramatization of the War of the Roses or the difficulty getting so much historical matter on the stage. Yet contemporary productions have been successful, particularly in depicting the ruthless Margaret and the increasingly alienated and enraged Richard, who emerges as the play's real anti-hero. Post World War II productions have especially benefited from emphasizing this play's representation of a once calm world spiraling toward chaos.
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