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Henry VI, part 1

King Henry VI Part 1 is one of the "history" plays of William Shakespeare. It is the first in the cycle of four plays often referred to as "The Wars of the Roses".

Table of contents

Date and Authorship

There is evidence that the first part of Henry VI was in fact written after the second and the third parts (which were originally published under different names), and Part 1 may therefore be thought of as a 'prequel'. In addition, there is strong stylistic evidence that Part 1 is not by Shakespeare alone, but was co-written by a team of three or more playwrights whose identities remain unknown (although Thomas Nashe is one possibility). Team-writing was common in the period, especially for history plays. One estimate is that Shakespeare wrote no more than 20% of the text. For this reason, the word 'Shakespeare' in the following paragraphs should perhaps be considered a shorthand for 'Shakespeare and his co-writers'.

Historical accuracy

Shakespeare's concern with historical accuracy is non-existent, but he does follow the chronicles available fairly closely. Although the characters and events are based on things that actually happened, in the century before his birth, his sole purpose – though we have no documents indicating this – was to produce entertaining and dramatic action for the troupes of actors with whom he was associated; he had little interest in educating his audience. The sources on which Shakespeare drew for this period included the Chronicle of Raphael Holinshed, which was itself a literary as much as a scholarly work.

The play is very biased and patriotic. The French are depicted as being foolish and easy to conquer, since the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 had created the illusion that the English were superior fighters than the French and only internal divisions and aristocratic squabbling (represented by the feuds between Gloucester and Winchester and between Somerset and York) would account for the English defeat. Joan of Arc is also portrayed as a witch and a whore, something that bodes ill with modern audiences.


The play opens in the aftermath of the death of King Henry V of England (although it was written before Shakespeare's play, Henry V). News reaches England of military setbacks in France, and the scene shifts across the English Channel, to Orleans, where "La Pucelle" (Joan of Arc) is encouraging the Dauphin to resist. She defeats an English army led by Talbot (Sir John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury).

While in France, Talbot and fellow Englishmen are trapped in the castle of a countess, but Talbot is prepared and foils her plan. In England, Richard, Duke of York quarrels with John Beaufort, 1st Duke of Somerset about his claim on the throne. The lords select red or white roses, depending on whether they favour the House of Lancaster or that of York. Edmund Mortimer, a leading claimant to the throne, is a prisoner in the Tower of London, and declares Richard his heir. The young Henry VI honours both Richard and Talbot. The latter dies bravely in his next battle against the French. In the meantime, King Henry is married off to a young French princess, Margaret of Anjou, who has been discovered by the Earl of Suffolk. Suffolk intends to dominate the king through Margaret. Ill feeling between him and the Duke of Gloucester continues to fester.

This is one of few occasions in which Shakespeare ends a play with a lack of closure. The slack construction may be a result of collaborative authorship (see above), or it may be because the play was written to be performed in tandem with Henry VI, part 2, which continues the story.


  • Charles, Dauphin and afterwards King of France (Charles VII of France)
  • Reignier, Duke of Anjou and titular King of Naples (Rene I of Naples)
  • Duke of Burgundy (Philip III, Duke of Burgundy)
  • Duke of Alencon (Jean II, Duke of Alençon)
  • Bastard of Orleans (Jean d'Orléans, Comte de Dunois)
  • Governor of Paris
  • Master Gunner of Orleans, and his son
  • General of the French Forces in Bordeaux
  • French Sergeant
  • Porter
  • Shepherd, father to Joan de Pucelle
  • Fiends appearing to Joan
  • Lords, attendants, warders, heralds, etc.


  • Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, eds. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (Oxford University Press, 1986)

External links

The works of William Shakespeare

Tragedies: Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet, Othello, Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Troilus and Cressida, Timon of Athens

Comedies: A Midsummer Night's Dream, All's Well That Ends Well, As You Like It, Cardenio (lost), Cymbeline, Love's Labour's Lost, Love's Labour's Won (lost), Measure for Measure, The Merchant of Venice, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, Pericles Prince of Tyre, Taming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Errors, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Two Noble Kinsmen, The Winter's Tale

Histories: Richard III, Richard II, Henry VI, part 1, Henry VI, part 2, Henry VI, part 3, Henry V, Henry IV, part 1, Henry IV, part 2, Henry VIII, King John, Edward III (attributed)

Other works: Sonnets, Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, The Passionate Pilgrim, The Phoenix and the Turtle

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