1 Henry VI is the first of Shakespeare's History Plays, and it shares with the later works a particular emphasis on the state. The development of individual characters is not very important, for the theme is English history. This play commences the Tetralogy of dramas dealing with the Wars of the Roses, the great crisis that formed the English nation as it was known to Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Here, the playwright deals with the earliest of the disruptions, beginning during the last phase of the Hundred Years War, a series of conflicts in which the French resisted English attempts to conquer them.
The action starts after the death of King Henry V, who had led his forces to great victories, establishing English control over large stretches of France (as Shakespeare was later to recount in Henry V); in the course of this play, these territories are almost all lost. However, Shakespeare's concern is not with narrative history. Rather, he amplifies the theme that England's misfortunes were the result of selfish ambitions unchecked by a weak monarch's incompetence. King Henry VI is an infant when the play begins and only a young man when it ends. Ambitious noblemen felt they had plenty of opportunity to increase their personal power, and to indulge in feuds that a more assertive monarch would have curtailed.
Shakespeare immediately sets out his themes in 1.1. The outbreak of verbal sparring between the Duke of Gloucester and the Bishop of Winchester introduces the disorder among the nobles. Moreover, the effects of this dissension are already beginning to be felt, as the Messengers arrive to tell of military losses in France, including the catastrophic capture of a great English leader, Talbot.
French successes in the war are juxtaposed with brawling disorders in England. For example, the disagreement between Gloucester and Winchester at the Tower of London in 1.3 follows the arrival of Joan of Arc to boost the morale of the French forces. Similarly, the rock-fight that spreads even into the king's deliberations in 3.1 immediately precedes Joan's successful ruse at Rouen in 3.2. The feuding of Vernon and Basset begins in 3.4, just after the defection of the Duke of Burgundy, and it continues in 4.1, providing a sorry prelude to the death of Talbot.
This disorder in the realm is reflected in the repeated instances of hypocrisy and dishonesty on the part of various characters. Mortimer advises Plantagenet to conceal his opposition to the Lahcasters (2.5). The Bishop of Winchester plots to kidnap the infant king, although this strand of the plot goes undeveloped, and he pretends to be reconciled with Gloucester after the fight in Parliament (1.1, 3.1). In the Temple garden dispute (2.4), Somerset refuses to abide by the majority vote he had agreed to honor Suffolk plots to deceive the king in Act 5, and in the final scene, even the saintly Henry is prevailed upon to Jo back on his agreement to marry the daughter of Armagnac. Another recurrent motif, representing the English dissension, is the interrupted ceremony. Three times, in 1.1, 3.1, and 4.1, ceremonial occasions are disrupted, each time more than once.
Shakespeare counterbalances these ominous occurrences with the character of Talbot, a model knight who symbolizes the lost English supremacy under Henry V. Talbot is the only nobleman who stands out from the array of rhetorical quarrelers. He is knightly courtesy itself at the beginning of the coronation scene, and he personifies righteous indignation when he refuses to tolerate the wearing of the Garter, symbol of valor, by the coward Fastolfe. Talbot s praises are sung repeatedly by English and French alike. But his virtues cannot survive in the prevailing climate of deceit and disorder, and his courageous death in 4.7 is presented as the direct result of the York-Somerset. Historically, the episode of York and Somerset's divided command took place in Normandy during the 1440s while Talbot's death occurred in southern France some years later. However, to increase the contrast between the brave and honorable Talbot on the one hand and the selfish, scheming factions on the other, Shakespeare provided a direct connection between the rise of the nobles and the loss of England’s hero. Neither the playwright nor his audience was concerned with historical accuracy, but 1 Henry VI is nevertheless strikingly at odds with the record as Shakespeare knew it. For instance, although the Duke of Burgundy did indeed change sides during the Hundred Years War, he did so some years after Joan s death Moreover, this defection resulted from two decades of minor disputes and disagreements between the English and the Burgundians. For dramatic reasons, Shakespeare compressed all this into one highly charged, if entirely fictitious, scene; this enabled him to emphasize the duplicity of the French and loan's associations with sorcery.
Similarly, the play describes, in close succession, Talbot's death, Joan's execution, and Henry s marriage: the fall of the great English hero prepares for that of the French heroine, who in turn is succeeded in the play by another Frenchwoman, the focus of a plot against Henry's power. To achieve these emotionally resonant juxtapositions, Shakespeare willfully ignored the chronicles, which correctly record a rather different arrangement. Joan was burned in 431, Henry was married in 1444, and Talbot died in 1453. Smaller distortions of the historical record occur throughout the play.
The playwright also invented a number of scenes for dramatic impact. Talbot's encounter with the Countess of Auvergne (2.3), for instance, points up aspects of the hero's soldierly nature and contrasts his honesty with the Countess' deceit. A more important invention is the confrontation between the future Duke of York and his rival Somerset in the Temple garden (2.4), in which they select as emblems a white and a red rose. This scene objectifies the rivalry that was to develop into civil war in the sequels to this play. Although historically it did not happen, it is so dramatically appropriate that we might wish it had.
Such inventions and obvious errors are much more evident to a reader than to an audience. The Hundred Years War and the English political scene are made real through a highly theatrical counterpoint of formal spectacle and unpredictable violence. The disrupted ceremonies noted above are obvious manifestations of this dramatic tension; the cool equanimity of the dying Bedford amid the hurly-burly of battle in 3^2 is a subtler instance. And Joan's brief dismissal of Sir William Lucy's elegiac recital of Talbot's noble titles brings us with a jolt from the formal dignity of medieval pomp to a renewed awareness of the carnage of battle.
King Henry himself is a humanly interesting character unlike the caricatures of 'ambitious courtiers around him, although his personality is more developed in 2 and 3 Henry VI. The conflict between his nature and the requirements of his situation fuels some of the development in this play and becomes highly significant in its sequels. Henry is gentle and thoughtful. He is distressed by the dissensions around him but is unable to contain them, not only on account of his youth, but also because of his innate dislike of involvement in worldly matters.
In general, however, character development is not a strength of this play, which partly explains its general unpopularity with modern audiences. The play’s style is rhetorical and formal, its content is largely expository, and the poetry tends to be somewhat stilted Another problem arises from the playwright’s need to consider the play as one of a series, a certain amount of dramatically undirected material must be used in order to establish concerns that will be dealt with only in the sequels. Most glaring of these incidents is the relationship between the Earl of Suffolk and Margaret of Anjou, which seems unrelated to anything else in the play. It is certainly used to establish a major theme of the next play. However, it also provides a natural climax to this one, completing the devastation of England's position in France with the loss of Anjou and Maine. Also, Margaret becomes the strong adversarial figure that Joan had been It is typical of•Shakespeare's strategies in 1 Henry VI that Margaret first appears just as Joan is rendered powerless. Among the conventional stances that the play adopts are a vicious anti-French bias and a contemptuous attitude towards Joan that now seems excessive. In the 18th and 19th centuries they were cited as evidence that the play could not have been written by Shakespeare, such attitudes being thought beneath a great writer. Such virulent Francophobia was in tune with Elizabethan attitudes, however, and the picture of Joan as a whorish sorceress comes from Shakespeare’s sources and he doubtless regarded it as historically
On the whole, 1 Henry VI cannot be regarded as a successful play. It lacks cohesion, being composed of scenes whose connections are more often contrasting than developmental. It is rhetorical to an extent that inhibits an audience's responses, and it does not reflect the insights into human nature that we associate with the mature Shakespeare. On the other hand, he play does present an extensive tract of complicated history, and it does so in a manner that enables us to apprehend it intellectually and also taste something of the nerve-racking reality of confused warfare. It was the drama of historical narrative, and he was to improve upon it in each of its sequels, before going on to the glories of the major tetralogy.
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