Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
VI Part I is a history play about the struggle for power during the
reign of a young English king. .
VI Part I was written between 1590 and 1592, when Shakespeare was still
in his twenties. It was published in 1623 as part of the First Folio, the
first authorized collection of Shakespeare's plays.
based Henry VI Part I primarily on accounts in The Chronicles
of England, Scotland and Ireland (Holinshed’s Chronicles), by
Raphael Holinshed (?-1580?), who began work on this history under the royal
printer Reginald Wolfe. The first edition of the chronicles was published
in 1577 in two volumes. Shakespeare also used
The Union of Two Noble
and Illustre Families of Lancastre and York, by Edward Hall (?-1547).
England, beginning with the funeral of King Henry V on Nov. 7, 1422; France,
including Orléans, Auvergne, Rouen, Paris, Bordeaux, plains near
Gascony, Anjou, Angiers. In this play, Shakespeare does not always use
actual historical dates when reporting battlefield news and other events.
The play is "thus quite unreliable as sober history," says G.B. Harrison.
(Work cited: Harrison, G.B., ed. Shakespeare: The Complete Works.
New York: Harcourt, 1952. Page 106.)
action takes place between 1422 and 1445—during the king's childhood, adolescence
and young adulthood—although Shakespeare presents events as if they were
occurring one immediately after the other. After serving merely as a figurehead
in his boyhood and adolescence, Henry begins to rule on his own in 1437.
Henry VI is the protagonist as the central figure in a chronicle that extends
into two other plays (Parts II and III). Although Henry is weak and retiring,
all of the political conniving and machination and all of the military
action center on his ability or inability to rule, on the legitimacy of
his rulership, and on the decisions he makes or endorses with respect to
England's future. He is like the eye of a hurricane, as it were: quiet,
pacific, aloof in the midst of raging storms.
The forces of ambition, power, and envy
King and His Overseers
Henry VI: Boy who becomes king after the death of his father, King
Henry V. When he grows up, he is weak and ineffectual; all of the leonine
qualities that one associates with monarchical rule are absent in him.
Duke of Gloucester: Uncle and protector of the king.
of Bedford: Uncle of the king and Regent of France.
Beaufort, Duke of Exeter:
Great-uncle and guardian of the king.
Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester: Self-seeking great-uncle of the king
and later a cardinal.
The Lancaster and York
Beaufort: Earl who becomes Duke of Somerset in the House of Lancaster.
Plantagenet: Son of the late Earl of Cambridge. Richard, who is made
a duke, becomes the leader of the House of York. He instigates an argument
that will eventually blossom into the Wars of the Roses in Henry VI
Part II and Henry VI Part III.
Mortimer, Earl of March: Richard's elderly uncle, who is imprisoned
in the Tower. He warns Richard to be wary of the House of Lancaster, which
has unfairly treated the Yorkists for many years.
Neville (Earl of Warwick): Member of the York (White Rose) faction.
Member of the York (White Rose) faction.
de La Pole, Earl of Suffolk: Member of the Lancaster (Red Rose)
Member the Lancaster (Red Rose) faction.
Talbot: Fierce warrior who leads the English against the French. He
becomes the Earl of Shrewsbury.
of Salisbury: Courageous English general.
Talbot: Lord Talbot's son.
John Fastolfe: Cowardly English captain.
William Lucy, Sir William Glansdale, Sir Thomas Gargrave
of Burgundy: English soldier who defects to the French.
Dauphin of France and later King of France as Charles VII.
La Pucelle (Joan of Arc): French military heroine regarded as a witch
by the English.
Duke of Anjou..
d'Alençon, Bastard of Orleans: Generals serving Reignier
Daughter of Reignier, afterwards married to King Henry VI.
of Orléans and His Son (Boy)
of the French Forces in Bourdeaux
Shepherd: Father of Joan.
appearing to La Pucelle
Ponton de Santrailles; : Prisoner of the Duke of Bedford. He is exchanged
for Lord Talbot.
Lieutenant of the Tower.
Characters: Lawyer, porter, lords, warders of the Tower, heralds, officers,
soldiers, messengers, attendants.
plot summary will be easy to follow if you keep in mind that the play has
three storylines. In the first, an uncle and a great-uncle of the new English
king—an infant boy who accedes to the throne as Henry VI in 1422 upon the
death of his father—vie for control the government while the child is growing
up. In the second, England goes to war against France and its warrior maiden,
Joan of Arc. In the third, an English nobleman of the House of York, who
believes his family has been cheated out of the throne over the years,
quarrels with an English nobleman who supports the House of Lancaster,
which has held the throne since 1399. The new king is a Lancaster.
action in the play takes place between 1422 and 1445.
Michael J. Cummings...©
England mourns the death of King Henry V in 1422. As his funeral procession
enters Westminster Abbey, the Duke of Bedford sums up the feelings of the
people when he tells the Duke of Gloucester: “Hung be the heavens with
black, yield day to night!. . . England ne’er lost a king of so much worth”
(1. 1. 3, 9). Henry V’s infant boy, born the previous year, inherits the
throne as Henry VI, the third and last king of the House of Lancaster.
(The first two were his grandfather, Henry IV, and his father, Henry V.)
The question for England now is this: Who will control the English government,
as well as French lands won by Henry V, when the little boy is growing
up? The central players in this dangerous political game include the following:
Duke of Gloucester
(Humphrey Plantagenet), brother of the late king and uncle of the new king.
Parliament names him acting Lord Protector to oversee government affairs.
His brother, the Duke of Bedford (John Plantagenet), officially holds the
title of Lord Protector. However, when Bedford goes to France to lead troops
in a defense of English-held French lands, he places the boy king and the
government in the hands of Gloucester.
the funeral of Henry V, a bitter quarrel erupts between Gloucester and
the Bishop of Winchester when the latter claims church prayers made the
late king what he was. Gloucester, who believes Winchester is claiming
credit for what he does not deserve, insults the bishop as a hypocrite.
When Winchester insults him back, claiming Gloucester plans to take full
control of the realm, Gloucester rejoins with
of Winchester (Henry Beaufort), uncle of Gloucester and Bedford and
great uncle of the new king. He holds the powerful position of Chancellor
of England. Though arrogant and grasping, he is politically astute and
vies with Gloucester for control of the government.
of the House of York. Richard and his supporters believe the House of York
was cheated out of the throne in 1399 by Henry IV, the first of the Lancaster
kings. Henry IV was succeeded by two other Lancaster kings, Henry V, and
now the boy king, Henry VI. Richard seeks to regain the throne for
the House of York.
John Beaufort (Earl
of Somerset), of the House of Lancaster. He backs the Lancasters against
Richard and the supporters of the House of York.
thou lov’st the flesh,
this domestic feud threatens England’s future, so, too, does new war in
France. Earlier, under the late Henry V, England captured certain French
lands. In a 1420 peace pact known as the Treaty of Troyes, the French agreed
that the King of England would become heir to the French throne. However,
in 1422, the Dauphin of France, Charles, rejects the provisions of the
treaty and, with considerable support, renews war with England. When his
father dies late in 1422, Charles assumes the powers of the monarchy, although
his step up from dauphin to king has not yet been sealed by a coronation
ceremony. The English, of course, still regard their own monarch as the
rightful heir of the French throne.
And ne’er throughout the
year to church thou go’st
Except it be to pray against
thy foes. (1.1.43-44)
the renewed war, the rebel French army of the dauphin includes forces under
Duke of Anjou.
the siege of Orléans, the French repulse the English and take as
prisoner England’s fiercest warrior, Lord Talbot. But the doughty English,
now led by Lord Salisbury, fight back ferociously and turn the tide back
in their favor. Dauphin Charles thinks all may be lost. However, the Bastard
of Orléans comes forth to inform Charles he has reason to cheer
Count of Dunois (known as the Bastard of Orléans). He is a general
Duke of Alençon,
a general under Reignier.
Be not dismay’d,
for succour is at hand:
maid is Joan La Pucelle, known to history as Joan of Arc. The Dauphin—skeptical
at first that a mere teenage girl could aid the French cause—takes
up a sword and tests her in a fencing match. She wins and he is now only
too happy to have her fighting on his side. Joan urges her comrades to
"fight till the last gasp" (1.2.133).
A holy maid hither with
me I bring,
Which by a vision sent to
her from heaven
Ordained is to raise this
And drive the English forth
the bounds of France. (1.2.55-59)
in England, Gloucester and Winchester continue their quarrel at the Tower
of London. Gloucester accuses Winchester of having contrived to murder
Henry V and further charges that he grants indulgences to whores. After
supporters of Gloucester and Winchester clash, the mayor of London reproaches
the two men for breaking the peace. Gloucester and Winchester exchange
more insults, then strike out at each other. An officer of the mayor then
orders everyone home on pain of death.
France, Talbot is released, thanks to a prisoner exchange arranged by the
Duke of Bedford. England now has its lion back. But when the battle for
Orléans rejoins, Joan leads an attack that repels the English, claiming
the lives of two English warriors, Lord Salisbury and Sir Thomas Gargrave.
Talbot, amazed by her exploits, calls her a witch. The jubilant Dauphin
calls her a saint. At night, redoubtable Talbot leads another attack as
the English cry, “Saint George!” (expressed in a stage direction: 2. 1.
43). Surprised, the French flee the city half-dressed. (This part of the
story is historically inaccurate; the English did not recapture Orléans.)
while Gloucester and Winchester carry on their feud in England, another
quarrel breaks out, this one between Richard Plantagenet, of the House
of York, and John Beaufort (Earl of Somerset), of the House of Lancaster.
Richard and his supporters believe the House of York was cheated out of
the throne by Henry IV, the first of the Lancaster kings. Henry IV was
succeeded by two other Lancaster kings, Henry V, and now the boy king,
a garden in London, Richard, confronting Somerset, bids all who support
him to pick a white rose from a bush. Somerset, in turn, asks all who support
him to pluck a red rose. Out of this beginning, the Wars of the Roses (between
the House of York, symbolized by white roses, and the House of Lancaster,
symbolized by red roses) will eventually develop. Later, Richard, seeking
a full explanation of why the Houses of York and Lancaster have been at
odds, visits his Uncle Mortimer, the Earl of March, who is imprisoned in
the Tower of London for opposing the rule of Henry IV, a Lancaster, many
Mortimer, who is near death, recites the history of the rivalry, pointing
out that he believes he should have been king long ago instead of Henry
IV. Since that time, Mortimer says, the Yorks have been unfairly treated.
He cautions Richard to be wary of the Lancasters, for they are solidly
entrenched in the political establishment. Shortly after Richard’s conversation
with the old man, Mortimer dies. Thus, three conflicts now afflict England:
(1) the Gloucester-Winchester feud, (2) the war with France, and (3) the
York-Lancaster dispute between Richard Plantagenet and John Beaufort.
a meeting in Parliament, young King Henry VI—now
old enough to exert some influence—urges Gloucester
and Winchester to put aside their differences for the good of the country.
In a scolding appeal, the king says:
O, what a scandal
is it to our crown,
and Winchester then are forced to shake hands. The king later turns to
Richard, who is also present, and says,
That two such noble peers
as ye should jar!
Believe me, lords, my tender
years can tell
Civil dissension is a viperous
That gnaws the bowels of
the commonwealth. (3.1.74-78)
But all the whole inheritance
That doth belong unto
the house of York,
From whence you spring
by lineal descent. (3. 1. 172-174)
he confers on Richard the title of Duke of York. Thus, now that domestic
strife appears to have been contained, the king can concentrate on the
war abroad. At the suggestion of Gloucester, the king travels to Paris
(along with the other principals of the drama) to be crowned there to engender
love among his subjects and dishearten his enemies.
Joan of Arc captures the city of Rouen, Talbot recaptures it. Then Joan
persuades Talbot’s chief ally, the Duke of Burgundy, to defect to the French.
After Talbot goes to Paris for Henry’s crowning, Henry rewards him with
a title, Earl of Shrewsbury, in recognition of his service. At the same
time, he banishes another combatant, Sir John Fastolfe, for cowardice.
the coronation of Henry, the domestic quarrel between Richard and Somerset
resurfaces. Their supporters are wearing roses in their caps—the
York faction, white ones, and the Lancaster, red ones. Although Henry wears
a red rose as a Lancaster, he declares his neutrality in the quarrel. To
pacify Richard and Somerset, the Crown appoints both men to high government
positions, and they sally forth to fight the French.
meanwhile, besieges Bordeaux and requests reinforcements, but Richard and
Somerset argue over what should be done. As a result, no reinforcements
are sent. Talbot and his son die in battle in a touching scene in which
the dying father clutches the body of his dead son. The tide of battle
then turns against the French, and the English capture two important prisoners:
the fiendish Joan and the beautiful Margaret of Anjou. The Earl of Suffolk
plans to make a match between Margaret and Henry. After the English question
Joan, she flings only insults and curses back at them:
May never glorious
sun reflex his beams
The English burn Joan at the
stake. Then they propose a peace in which the French ruler becomes a viceroy
under the English ruler while still enjoying his royal privileges. Charles
agrees to a truce while keeping in mind the advice of one of his men to
break the truce when he so desires. Henry, now twenty-four, then marries
Margaret of Anjou in April of 1445 at Suffolk’s urging. Suffolk, who has
an eye for Margaret, is pleased. He says that Margaret will rule Henry
and that he, Suffolk, will rule both Margaret and Henry.
Upon the country where you
But darkness and the gloomy
shade of death
Environ you, till mischief
Drive you to break your
necks or hang yourselves! (5. 4. 90-94)
climax of a play or another literary work, such as a short story or a novel,
can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to
resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting
event in a series of events. The climax of Henry VI Part I arguably
occurs, according to both definitions, when Lord Talbot and his son die,
galvanizing the English into redoubling their efforts and leading to the
capture and execution of Joan of Arc. A peace treaty and English-French
marriage then follow to maintain comity..
a country is its own worst enemy. England fights France; but enemies
at home also imperil the welfare of England.
can work wonders. Joan La Pucelle (Joan of Arc) proves that on the
battlefield she is the equal of any man. However, unlike other strong Shakespeare
heroines, Joan is depicted as evil—a witch who uses her diabolical power
to repel the English. The historic Joan is depicted as extraordinarily
pious and upright, though fierce in the pursuit of her goals. She is a
canonized saint of the Roman Catholic Church and one of the most admired
women in European history.
and ambition will take advantage of youth and innocence. Self-seekers
attempt to manipulate the boy king, Henry VI, in order to control the government.
True heroism is selfless.
Although most of the characters in the play take risks for personal gain,
the great English warrior Talbot puts himself in peril for the welfare
of England—and his son, John, follows in his
footsteps. Both die bravely in battle. Talbot's heroism carries on the
patriotic tradition of Henry V, who is mourned at the beginning of the
extraordinary power as a writer derives in large part from his ability
to compose memorable figures of speech. He exhibits this power in Henry
VI Part I. Shakespeare wrote the play at the very beginning of his
career in London, when he was attempting to establish a reputation as a
playwright. Following are examples of the types of figures of speech in
Repetition of a consonant
the heavens with black,
yield day to night! (1.1.1)
the honour of the forlorn
death that killeth me
he sees me
go back one foot
them well. (2.3.88)
have dangerous ends. (3.2.37)
Repetition of a word, phrase,
or clause at the beginning of word groups occurring one after the other
two hawks, which
flies the higher pitch;
two dogs, which
hath the deeper mouth;
two blades, which
bears the better temper;
two horses, which
doth bear him best;
two girls, which
hath the merriest eye (2.4.13-17)
an abstraction or a thing, present or absent, or addressing an absent person
change of times and states,
Brandish your crystal tresses
in the sky. (1.1.2-3)
Duke of Bedford addresses comets
His [Henry V's]
brandish’d sword did blind men with his beams;
His arms spread wider than
a dragon’s wings;
His sparkling eyes, replete
with wrathful fire,
More dazzled and drove back
Than mid-day sun fierce
bent against their faces. (1.1.12-16)
Comparison of unlike things
without using like, as, or than
Your hearts I’ll
stamp out with my horse’s heels
And make a quagmire of your
mingled brains. (1.4.113-114)
Comparison of the mingled
remains of the pulverized brains of French soldiers to a swamp
The day begins to break,
and night is fled,
Whose pitchy mantle over-veil’d
the earth. (2.2.3-4)
Comparison of darkness
to a cloak
Civil dissension is a viperous
That gnaws the bowels of
the commonwealth. (3.1.74-78)
Comparison of dissension
to a worm
How are we park’d and bounded
in a pale,
A little herd of England’s
Maz’d with a yelping kennel
of French curs! (4.2.48-50)
Comparison of English
soldiers to deer and French soldiers to mongrel dogs
statement that may actually be true
Are often welcomest when
they are gone. (2.2.58-59)
But now the arbitrator
Just death, kind umpire
of men's miseries,
With sweet enlargement doth
dismiss me hence. (2.5.28-30)
Comparison of death to
a human being
Comparison of unlike things
using like, as, or than
Glory is like a
circle in the water,
Which never ceaseth to enlarge
Till by broad spreading
it disperse to nought. (1.2.139-141)
Comparison of glory to
a circle in the water
The other lords, like lions
Do rush upon us as their
hungry prey. (1.2.30-31)
Comparison of the lords
My thoughts are whirled like
a potter’s wheel (1.5.22)
Comparison of mental
activity to the whirling of a potter's wheel
Shakespeare presents an
unusual device in Henry VI Part I: rhyming conversation. The following
exchange between Talbot and his son demonstrates this device:
Shall all thy mother's hopes lie in one tomb?
VI: Saintly Scholar
Ay, rather than I'll shame my mother's womb.
TALBOT Upon my blessing,
I command thee go.
TALBOT To fight I will, but not to fly the foe.
TALBOT Part of thy
father may be saved in thee.
No part of him but will be shame in me.
TALBOT Thou never
hadst renown, nor canst not lose it.
Yes, your renowned name: shall flight abuse
TALBOT Thy father's
charge shall clear thee from that stain.
You cannot witness for me, being slain.
CHARLES O, no,
forbear! for that which we have fled
During the life, let us
not wrong it dead. (4. 5. 36-45).
depicts Henry VI as weak and ineffectual, as he was in real life. However,
the historical Henry did possess some praiseworthy qualities, notably his
piety as a devout Catholic and his love of learning and education. He exhibited
the latter quality when he established Eton College in 1440 as the King's
College of Our Lady of Eton Beside Windsor, providing scholarships
for deserving boys who enrolled. Henry also founded Cambridge University's
King's College to enable Eton boys to continue their education.
Eton and King's College continue operation today as two of England's most
respected educational institutions. As for Henry's famous saintliness,
Edward Hall, a historian who graduated from Eton and King's College, described
it in a history that Shakespeare used as one of his sources for the play.
Hall (also spelled
He did abhor of his own
nature, all the vices, as well of the body as of the soul; and from his
very infancy he was of honest conversation and pure integrity; no knower
of evil, and a keeper of all goodness; a despiser of all things which were
wont to cause the minds of mortal men to slide or appair. Besides this,
patience was so radicate in his heart that of all the injuries to him committed
(which were no small number) he never asked vengeance nor punishment, but
for that rendered to Almighty God, his Creator, hearty thanks, thinking
that by this trouble and adversity his sins were to him forgotten and forgiven
(qtd. in G.B. Harrison, ed. Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New
York: Harcourt, 1952, page 143).
of the Houses of Lancaster and York
of Lancaster: Henry IV ("Bolingbroke," son of the Duke of Lancaster),
1399-1413. Age at death: 47. Henry V (son of Henry IV), 1413-1422. Age
at death: 34. Henry VI (son of Henry V, deposed), 1422-1471. Age at death:
of York: Edward IV (son of duke of York), 1461-1483. Age at death:
41. Edward V (son of Edward IV), 1483. Age at death: 13. Richard III ("Crookback,"
brother of Edward IV) 1483-1485. Age at death: 35.
of the Roses
Bolingbroke's ascendancy to the English throne as Henry IV was the germinal
event that triggered the War of the Roses (1455-1485) between the House
of york and the House of Lancaster—founded
by Bolingbroke's father, John of Gaunt. For additional information on the
War of the Roses,
Questions and Essay Topics
1. Which character in the
play is the most admirable? Which is the least admirable?
on DVD (or VHS)
2. Write an essay that uses
VI Part I to demonstrate how ruthless politicians maneuver to get their
3. Write a psychological
profile of King Henry VI.
4. If Joan of Arc was such
a praiseworthy human being, why did Shakespeare depict her as a witch?
5. In monarchies, rulership
passes to a son or daughter of the king and queen. Is a monarchy a flawed
system of government? Or does it have its merits?
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