William Shakespeare‘s King Henry VI is a trilogy of plays covering 50 tumultuous years of the mid-fifteenth century, during which the power struggle between the houses of Lancaster and York blossomed into The Wars of the Roses, so called because of the heraldic symbols of the houses, the red and the white rose, respectively.
- Part I starts with the death of King Henry V, and covers the wars in France (against which the English faced Joan or Arc, considered demonic by the English, a saint by the French) during the early years of King Henry VI, in which France succeeded in (mostly) pushing England out of France. The play highlights the dissension between the nobles at home, including the deep animosity between the houses of York and Lancaster. Lord Talbott dies, and with him, seemingly, chivalry. This is often considered one of Shakespeare’s weakest plays.
- Part II includes the marriage of Henry to Margaret of Anjou; the plots of the Yorkists, the rebellion of Jack Cade, and the deaths of Cardinal Beaufort, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, Suffolk and Somerset. A major theme of Part II is Henry’s weakness, and his inability to control his own court. He is shown as a good, pious man, but a poor, weak leader, in contrast to Margaret who is decisive and strong. This is usually considered the best play of this trilogy, not the least reason of which is the oft quoted “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”!
- Part III covers Henry VI’s surrender with the crown going to the Duke of York. It also includes Queen Margaret’s revolt (from her anger at her son being disinherited) and the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471 where Henry VI is murdered by Richard, Duke of Gloucester (the future King Richard III). Themes include revenge, which drives the actions of most of the main characters, and power and family conflict. Like Part I, Part III is often considered one of Shakespeare’s weaker plays.
Though most agree all three parts were written by 1592, like most things Shakespeare, there is considerable controversy around the exact timing and ordering in which the plays were written, some arguing that Part I was a prequel, written after the others. There is also much critical debate on if Shakespeare wrote these on his own (especially Part I), and who his collaborators were. It does seem reasonably certain that Part I was first acted on stage in 1592 (though not published until the First Folio of 1623), the second part in 1594 and the third part in 1595. The second and third parts (amended) appeared together with the first part in the 1623 folio.
The three volumes reviewed here are part of the fabulous, Bruce Rogers designed 37 volume ‘The Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies of William Shakespeare‘ published by the Limited Editions Club in 1939 and 1940. Like all of the books in this collection, the work is as good as it gets, especially the wonderful work of Herbert Farjeon in editing and amending the text. As for the illustrations, my favorite single one is the frontispiece to Part I by Graham Sutherland (you will see below), with a beautiful red rose presented in a foreboding manner. From cover to cover, my opinion is that Carlotta Petrina’s classical and narrative based lithographs for Part II best capture the essence of what it represents, while the drawings of Jean Charlot in Part III simply do not work for me.
About the Edition
- Part of the 37 volume LEC Plays of William Shakespeare from 1939/1940
- Edited and amended by Herbert Farjeon
- Designed by Bruce Rogers
- Printed by A. Colish, New York
- Part I illustrations are lithographs by Graham Sutherland drawn directly on the stone, printed at Curwen Press in London
- Part II illustrations are lithographs by Carlotta Petrina drawn directly on the stone, printed by George C. Miller in New York
- Part III illustrations are drawings in color by Jean Charlot (Charlor did a simple pen outline first, after the photo-engraver made the plates of the outlines, Charlot then applied color washes to the proofs, and new plates were then made of the color), printed letterpress by A. Colish in New York
- Preface to the plays (in the prospectus) by Barrett Wendell, from “William Shakespeare” published by Scribner’s in 1894.
- Type is an 18 point close facsimile of Janson, made by the Lanston Monotype Company, with the italic used being a creation of the Monotype Company since Rogers did not like the Janson 18 point italic; italic small capitals were made by re-cutting the Italic capitals of the Monotype Garamond Bold in a special size and with slight alterations of a few of the characters with a close new type face
- New paper created for this edition by the Worthy Paper Company of Springfield
- The binding was done by Russell-Rutter Company in New York
- Bound with gilt tops and uncut edges in backs of American linen, with the titles stamped in gold on the spine
- Cover design based on a decoration wall design in a house that that Shakespeare was thought to have stayed at frequently (a friend of his)
- 8 3/4″ x 13″
- Limited to 1950 copies
Pictures of the Edition
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