Henry VI Part One  – William Shakespeare

This is the first play in the first Tetralogy, to be followed by parts Two and Three, ending with Richard III.

This is a play that has a lot – political intrigue, an unsure King, a strong female warrior, and quite a lot of fighting. Henry VI has just gained the throne on the death of his father, and though he perhaps does not want the role, determines to do his best. In the enemy camp, Joan of Arc appears, the best warrior the French have, but because she’s female they do not respect or really support her.

Summary

Henry V has just died, and England is suffering military setbacks in its war with France. Lord Bedford takes command of the English army, Lord Gloucester takes charge of the government, Lord Essex prepares the young boy for coronation, and Lord Talbot gets captured by the French.

The sense is of chaos, lack of command, and of things coming to a head.

In France, Joan of Arc wins a personal combat duel which was ordered by the French King Charles, and gets placed in charge of the French army at Orleans. Bedford gets Talbot released, Joan orders an immediate attack which the French win, but Talbot & Bedford launch their own surprise attack which gains them the city, and the French flee.

In the English court, personalities are quarrelling. Richard Plantagenet and Duke of Somerset row, and Richard asks the other nobles to choose sides by wearing either a red or white rose. Richard’s passions and kingly ambitions are further inflamed when he visits his imprisoned uncle Mortimer, who tells him he has a better claim to the throne than Henry (see the reviews of the Henriads here).

Henry VI is crowned. When Mortimer dies, Richard petitions the King for the return of his title, which he grants. Richard is now Duke of York. Henry goes to France where the English suffer a reverse at Rouen, but take it back, although Bedford dies. Talbot now assumes command.

Joan of Arc convinces the Duke of Burgundy to defect to their cause, and Henry sends Talbot to negotiate. Unwittingly, when interceding between Somerset and York, Henry chooses a symbolic red rose [Somerset] thus making an enemy of Richard [white rose]. He gives Somerset the command of the cavalry, Richard the infantry, but their mutual distrust causes them to fail to send reinforcements to Talbot, who along with his son and his army is trapped and killed at Bordeaux.

Joan is captured by Richard, and burned at the stake.

An uneasy peace is brokered by the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, and Charles becomes Henry’s viceroy.

Finally, the Earl of Suffolk captured a French princess called Margaret, somewhat impoverished and no political connections (even though her father is King of Naples), and attempts to marry her off to the King. Suffolk plans to wield influence over the King through her. Although Gloucester strongly advises against the match, Henry is convinced by the picture Suffolk paints of her beauty, and agrees.

Main Characters:

Henry VI: Young, inexperienced, not a man of action, and faced with a fractious court. He lacks political nous (choosing a particular rose, making a less-beneficial match), and is not really warlike, though is concerned mainly with doing good for God and his country.

Charles the Dauphin: Crown Prince of France, who makes himself King, fairly successful militarily (wins back a lot of his kingdom), but then cedes leadership of the army to Joan when she proves herself against him. He eventually agrees to peace, to avoid further bloodshed.

Joan of Arc: A visionary, she leads the French to several victories. However, the English consider her a witch, and when captured have no hesitation burning her.

Richard Plantagenet: He of the white rose, initially he only wanted his title Duke of York back, but becomes fixated on taking back his kingly inheritance. He comes across as having a stronger character than the King, preferring to settle things via action than words.

Gloucester: Power behind the throne until Henry comes of age, he offers sound practical advice, and seems not to have designs on the throne.

Talbot: Henry’s best general, loved by his troops and feared by the French, and is considered among the last of the chivalrous knights. Commands the army while Henry has yet to accede to the throne, but due to internal rivalries between Somerset & York gets isolated and killed by the enemy.

Minor Characters:

Somerset: He chooses the red rose in his argument with York, and is part of the reason behind the Bordeaux debacle when Talbot is killed.

Suffolk: Captures Margaret, and convinces Henry to marry her. He aims to use Margaret to increase his influence on the King.

Margaret: Daughter of an earl, is set to become Queen of England following her capture and arranged marriage with Henry. Comes across as practical and pragmatic.

Themes:

Power: Henry seems to start without any power at all – unproven in battle, too young initially to take the reins of government, and can’t even be firm enough on who he wants to marry. He is not a man of action like his father and grandfather, and he faces enemies who are far more accomplished on the field of battle, which may have caused doubters like Burgundy to defect.

Patriotism: This play was written, it is believed, to buttress a waning sense of loyalty to country. However, England’s leaders are not great role models – the King’s grandfather may have usurped the throne, two leading houses are on the verge of war, they are riven internally by dissension and indecision. “What is patriotism” is not resolved by play’s end, but is central to how people behave.

Fun Facts:

  • It is believed this play was a “prequel”, written after the plays we now know as Henry VI parts 2 and 3.
  • This play contains a character that appears in three other plays – Margaret (appears in all the first tetralogy). [The only other character to appear in four plays is also a woman – Mistress Quickly – Henry IV 1 & 2, Henry V, The Merry Wives of Windsor]

Famous Everyday Phrase Coined/Popularised:

“Fight till the last gasp”

“Faint-hearted”

2 thoughts on “Henry VI Part One  – William Shakespeare

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