Destabilising Decapitation in 'King Henry VI'


  • Hannah Simpson St Cross College, University of Oxford
  • Hannah Simpson Faculty of English, University of Oxford



Shakespeare, beheading, decapitation, Henry VI, subversion, authority, state power


In early modern England, state beheadings were carefully codified, reserved for the nobility and those convicted of treason. The highest and lowest in society were sentenced to beheading: those who headed the nation and those who threatened the head of the nation. Beheading was both a confirmation and an inscription of power: the publicly-staged state-mandated beheading inscribed the state’s power on the subject’s body, reducing the individual to a legible, mastered sign. The decapitated head was intended to be a stable, monosemantic inscription of state power.

Shakespeare, however, often resisted the idea of the decapitated head as a permanent, definitive inscription of state authority. This article will examine decapitations in Shakespeare’s King Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3 (1591), exploring how these plays undermine the state’s attempt to inscribe a stable, single meaning on the decapitated head. The plays do this in two ways: firstly, by challenging the state’s monopoly on according hierarchised punishment, by staging illicit beheadings; secondly, by according an agency and an influence to the decapitated head itself on the stage. The recognition of how these staged beheadings undermine the state’s inscription of power might guide us towards seeing the genre’s recurrently subversive response to the state’s claim to authority.


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Painting of Judith with the head of Holofernes






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