Henry VI, part 1
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'.
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.
- King Henry VI
- Duke of Gloucester, uncle to the King, and Protector (Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester)
- Duke of Bedford, uncle to the King, and Regent of France (John, Duke of Bedford)
- Duke of Exeter, great-uncle to the King (Thomas Beaufort, Duke of Exeter)
- Bishop of Winchester, great-uncle to the King (Henry Cardinal Beaufort)
- Duke of Somerset, great-uncle to the King (John Beaufort, 1st Duke of Somerset)
- Richard Plantagenet, cousin to the King, afterwards Duke of York (Richard, Duke of York)
- Earl of Warwick (Richard de Beauchamp, 13th Earl of Warwick)
- Earl of Salisbury (Thomas Montacute, 4th Earl of Salisbury)
- Lord Talbot, afterwards Earl of Shrewsbury (John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury)
- John Talbot, his son (John Talbot, 2nd Earl of Shrewsbury)
- Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March (Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March)
- Sir John Fastolfe
- Sir William Lucy
- Sir William Glansdale
- Sir Thomas Gargrave
- Mayor of London
- Woodville, Lieutenant of the Tower
- Vernon, of the White Rose or York faction
- Basset, of the Red Rose or Lancaster faction
- Jailer to Mortimer
- 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
- Shepherd, father to Joan de Pucelle
- Margaret, daughter to Reignier, afterwards married to King Henry (Margaret of Anjou)
- Countess of Auvergne
- Joan of Pucelle (Joan of Arc)
- Fiends appearing to Joan
- Lords, attendants, warders, heralds, etc.
- Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, eds. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (Oxford University Press, 1986)
- Henry VI, part 1 – searchable,indexed e-text
- The first Part of Henry the Sixth – HTML version of this title.
- Henry the Sixth Part 1 – plain vanilla text from Project Gutenberg