The First Part of King Henry the Sixth
is history play by William Shakespeare
, believed written in approximately 1588–1590. It is the first in the cycle of four plays often referred to as "The First Tetralogy".
Shakespeare's primary source for Henry VI, Part 1
, as for most of his chronicle histories, was Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles
; the publication of the second edition in 1587 provides a terminus ad quem
for the play. Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Illustrious Families of Lancaster and York
appears also to have been consulted, and scholars have also supposed Shakespeare familiar with Samuel Daniel's poem on the civil wars.
English patriotism was at a high after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. This patriotism fed the fascination audiences had with history plays and led to their popularity with English audiences.
Date and text
Henry VI Part 1 is one of the earliest of Shakepeare's plays, and its date of composition is a matter of conjecture and debate. It is typically assigned a date from 1588–1590. Academic opinion is divided as to whether the play is the first composed of a three part series or a prequel
to an earlier written two-part play. The latter option currently finds more favour.
Playwright Robert Greene makes a reference to Henry VI, Part 3 in 1592. It was entered into the Stationers' Register in 1598.
Some scholars, citing stylistic evidence, believe 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 Nashe, Greene and Marlowe are common proposals. Others claim that this theory is the result of 18th and 19th century distaste for the treatment of Joan of Arc.
The play follows the available historical chronicles fairly closely, while making occasional changes for dramatic effect.
Some of the changes appear to have been made for patriotic reasons. The French are depicted as foolish and easy to defeat, perhaps because the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 had created the belief among the English that their soldiers were superior to the French. The play implies that only internal divisions and aristocratic squabbling (represented by the feuds between Gloucester and Winchester and between Somerset and York) could account for the English defeat. In addition, Joan of Arc, a national heroine in France, is portrayed as a witch and a whore by Shakespeare. This depiction would have been in keeping with available documents in the English language from the fifteenth century because the English had been her enemies in war.
The Diary of Philip Henslowe
records a performance of a Henry VI
on March 3
, by the Lord Strange's Men
. Thomas Nashe
, in his Pierce Penniless
, also of 1592, refers to a popular play about Lord Talbot, seen by "ten thousand spectators at least" at separate times. Apart from 1 Henry VI
, no play about Talbot is known to have existed. Since Henry VI, part 3
was also acted in 1592—Robert Greene
parodied one of its lines in his 1592 pamphlet A Groatsworth of Wit
—the implication is that all three parts of the trilogy were being acted in 1592.
Otherwise, 1 Henry VI has very little stage history; it remained unacted until 1906. The play was not published until it was included in the First Folio in 1623.
In 1977, Terry Hands directed uncut productions of all three Henry VI plays for the Royal Shakespeare Company with Alan Howard as the King and Helen Mirren as Queen Margaret.
In 1980, a BBC television production of the Henry VI trilogy, substantially uncut, was made and broadcast and is now available on DVD.
In, 1987–89, Michael Bogdanov directed, for the English Shakespeare Company a radical, self-declared 'leftist' staging which conflated the three Henry VI plays into two. The production was notable for its use of anachronistic and patriotic imagery and the performance of Michael Pennington in the dual role(s) of The Duke of Suffolk and Jack Cade.
In 2002, Edward Hall directed Rose Rage, a two-part adaptation based on all three Henry VI plays, at the Haymarket Theatre.
In 2006–08, the Royal Shakespeare Company presented, again uncut, productions of all eight of Shakespeare's Plantagenet history plays under the direction of Michael Boyd. These were staged in Stratford on Avon (at the Courtyard Theatre, built on the site of The Other Place) and in London at the Camden Roundhouse.
The following lists the characters in the play and, where appropriate links to the historical figures on which they are based)
- 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 Montagu, 4th Earl of Salisbury)
- Lord Talbot, afterwards Earl of Shrewsbury (John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury)
- John Talbot, his son (John Talbot, 1st Viscount Lisle)
- 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 (René I of Naples)
- Duke of Burgundy (Philip III, Duke of Burgundy)
- Duke of Alencon (John II of Alençon)
- Bastard of Orleans (Jean 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 la Pucelle (Joan of Arc)
- Fiends appearing to Joan
- Lords, attendants, warders, heralds, etc.
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. The lords select red or white roses to indicate whose claim they believe is correct. King Henry innocently selects a red rose, aligning himself with Somerset and setting in motion the Wars of the Roses between the House of Lancaster, represented by the red rose, and the House of York, represented by the white. 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 faction between Somerset and York deepens, ultimately costing the lives of Talbot and his son in battle against the French. On top of this dissention lies a long-running dispute between the Protector Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, Henry V's brother, and the powerful Bishop of Winchester (later Henry Cardinal Beaufort). Meanwhile, Henry is under pressure from the pope and other heads of state to end the war quickly, and toward this end agrees to marry the daughter of the Earl of Armagnac.
Back in France, York leads the English to victory in Angiers and captures Joan, who is sent to the stake. Beaufort arrives to organize a truce that dissatisfies everyone: York resents having the opportunity for complete victory snatched from his grasp, while the King of France resents becoming a viceroy under Henry. The Earl of Suffolk has captured a young French princess, Margaret of Anjou, with whom he falls in love. He arranges to have her marry Henry, intending to dominate the king through her.
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.
- Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, eds. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Oxford University Press, 1986. ISBN 0198129262, ISBN 019812919X.