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Henry VI, Part 1 | Context

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The Real Henry VI

Though not the first of Shakespeare's works to grace the stage, the Henry VI plays were the playwright's first major critical and commercial successes. Guardian arts critic Andrew Dickson (2016) describes them as "Shakespeare's first big hits." Shakespeare's play Richard III can be seen as a sequel to these three histories.

Henry VI, Part 1 is believed to have had writers in addition to Shakespeare, as it was his earliest apprenticeship work (he evidently made significant revisions on it in 1590–91). It is generally agreed that he most certainly authored Act 2, Scene 4, most of Act 4, and Act 5, Scene 3 and did not create the characterization of Joan of Arc.

Much of Shakespeare's information about Henry VI and the Wars of the Roses comes from historian Edward Hall, whose Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1548), also called Hall's Chronicle, narrates the war from its earliest origins in the days of Richard II. An exchange in the play between Talbot and his son in Act 4, Scene 5 is paraphrased from the Chronicle. Additional background comes from Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Ireland, and Scotland (1577), Shakespeare's go-to text for medieval British history.

Almost from the first scene, Henry VI, Part 1 takes some serious liberties with the historical record as set down by the chroniclers. The Duke of Bedford, for example, was a mere 46 years old when he died, but Shakespeare makes him an old man; successive generations of dukes and earls are often conflated to produce a single character symbolic of his entire house. The Battle of Patay (1429), which led to Lord Talbot's capture, took place after the Siege of Orléans had been lifted (also 1429), but Shakespeare chooses to reverse the order, perhaps so Talbot (a central character) is not taken prisoner in the midst of the play's action. As was his usual practice, Shakespeare also compressed events to fit the demands of the stage. Even with two more plays to go (Parts 2 and 3), there was much the Bard had to alter or omit.

Perhaps the most remarkable departure is King Henry's age. The real Henry VI was an infant when he acceded to the throne. In the play he is an adolescent: he is old enough to engage in intelligent dialogue with his courtiers but still young enough that the thought of getting married (Act 5) is a bit overwhelming. His youth is an important aspect of his character: Henry VI may be king, but he has a child's idealistic simplicity when it comes to political matters. He wants the adults in his life—who happen to be the most powerful men in the realm—to get along, and he is generally ready to believe them when they say they have his best interests at heart.

War Abroad and at Home

Although the Wars of the Roses dominate the Henry VI trilogy as a whole, the central conflict of Part 1 is the Hundred Years' War, a struggle between England and France that ran intermittently from 1337 to 1453. For Shakespeare's purposes, the key issue fueling the war is French royal succession. After the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, Henry V had negotiated a peace with the French—the Treaty of Troyes (1420)—whose main condition was that his son would be the heir to the French throne. The terms of this treaty, however, were contrary to traditional French succession law, leading to an ongoing rift among the French nobility. Many of the French held that Charles the Dauphin (Charles VII) was their rightful king; as far as the English were concerned Henry VI was king of France and Charles was a traitorous pretender. Although Henry VI, Part 1 ends with another peace deal in the works (the Treaty of Tours, 1444), the fighting will resume later in the trilogy, leading to an eventual French victory.

Part 1 also foreshadows the Wars of the Roses, the generations-spanning conflict between the Houses of York and Lancaster. By the time the play begins, the feud between these two royal houses has been simmering for decades, ever since Henry IV (Duke of Lancaster) had supplanted Richard II as king of England. The quarrel reaches a point of no return in Act 2, when Richard Plantagenet (later Duke of York) begins amassing followers to support him against his enemy the Duke of Somerset (a high-ranking Lancastrian). In Part 1 the English nobility gradually split along party lines, but civil war is averted by the need to subdue France. The Battle of Saint Albans, dramatized at the end of Part 2, marks the formal beginning of the war, which is the chief subject of Part 3.

"Dauphin or Dogfish"

Written over the course of two decades and spanning over three centuries of recorded events, Shakespeare's English history plays are a diverse lot. Most of them, however, share a generally unsympathetic attitude toward France, which would have pleased his audiences and his aristocratic patrons. French noblemen and soldiers, including the Duke of Burgundy in Henry VI, Part 1, are usually depicted as scheming, dishonest, and cowardly; several, like Joan la Pucelle, are cast as villains. Although Francophobia (fear of the French) had waned since the beginning of Elizabeth's reign, two centuries of intermittent warfare had left the English with a strong distrust of the French.

Shakespeare's plays frequently take potshots at French customs and manners, which are presented as overly fussy or precious. Richard II, written much later than the Henry VI plays, contains some snide remarks on the "chopping" nature of the French language; and Monsieur le Bon, a suitor in The Merchant of Venice, is best described as an overly energetic nincompoop. In Henry V the typical Frenchman is a vain, hotheaded nobleman who is more interested in the trappings of warfare (horses, swords, armor) than in actually fighting a war.

Henry VI, Part 1 offers several of its own examples of this trend. The Duke of Burgundy is a traitor—in fact Joan sees his double-dealing as the most quintessentially French thing about him. Charles the Dauphin is, frankly, a bit of a sap: after fighting side by side with Joan in a single battle, he wants to build pyramids to her and have her proclaimed a saint. Another Shakespearean technique for poking fun at the French is somewhat broader in scope: to show their noblemen being defeated (or frightened away) by an English soldier of much lower rank. This occurs in Act 2, Scene 1, when foot soldiers scare off the Dauphin and his crew by merely shouting the name of Lord Talbot.

Henry VI, Part 1 on Stage and Screen

Henry VI, Part 1 was enthusiastically received by Elizabethan audiences. Thomas Nashe, a fellow playwright and poet, famously praised Shakespeare's portrayal of Lord Talbot in his 1592 satirical pamphlet Pierce Penniless:

How would it have joyed brave Talbot (the terror of the French) to think that after he had lain two hundred years in his tomb, he should triumph again on the stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators ... who, in the tragedian that represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding?

Since the Elizabethan era, however, performances of Henry VI, Part 1 have been relatively rare. Hugh Macrae Richmond of the Berkeley Shakespeare Program calls the play's stage history "uneven" and suggests plotting as the main problem: "Its complex tapestry of English history," Richmond writes, is a far cry from the "tightly sequential plot required by Aristotle" (and more closely approximated in Shakespeare's comedies). The search for a tighter narrative structure has often led directors to stage a trimmed-down version of the Henry VI trilogy rather than presenting any one play in its entirety. Peter Hall and John Barton took this approach in their Wars of the Roses (1963), a medieval-dress production broadcast on BBC TV in 1965. Adrian Noble, also of the Royal Shakespeare Company, followed suit in The Plantagenets (1988). More recently Dominic Cooke has adapted the Henry VI plays for the screen as part of the BBC TV series The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses (2016).

Other leading English directors have presented the trilogy without major cuts or revisions. A particularly well-regarded example is the RSC production of Michael Boyd (2000), which Guardian drama critic Michael Billington (2014) describes as "a compelling portrait of an England spiralling into chaos." This high-energy staging, writes Billington, "proved" that the Henry VI plays "are central to an understanding of Shakespeare."

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