Henry VI Part 1 by William Shakespeare

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Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 1 (written maybe 1588 or 1592, possibly revised 1594) dramatizes the beginning of the War of Roses (which lasted from 1455 to 1485). It portrays the animosity between the leaders of the House of York and the leaders of the House of Lancaster as they bickered amongst each other for power, even as England continued the quest to control France, whose army was led by the warrior Joan of Arc.

Does that sound like a lot going on? It felt like it was a lot as I read it. My main problem was remembering who was who, and I found myself frequently referencing the cast list as I read the play. Henry VI Part 1 is commonly named as one of Shakespeare’s poorer plays1, and I’m not surprised. I am fascinated by Joan of Arc and for personal reasons I was intrigued by the historical aspects of the play, but nothing truly remarkable made Henry VI Part 1 stick out for me. I do look forward to reading the next two parts, because I’m hoping my greater familiarity with the characters, plus the “better written” reputation, will make it a more satisfying read.

But although nothing truly remarkable stood out about the play, I still really enjoyed reading it. Joan of Arc was a fascinating woman. Even though she wasn’t written or developed necessarily well in the play, I liked her appearance in the novel. Shakespeare ultimately portrays her as a witch; towards the end of the play, she calls on her spirits and none come to her aid in battle, thus leading to her capture by the English and her ultimate execution. But still, I really liked to see the ways in which the French army relied on her powers in battle. I also am drawn to this history play because my genealogy can be traced back to Margaret of Anjou2. It’s strange to consider that when Shakespeare wrote this play, the history was just over 100 years old. For him, it’s rather recent history!

The passages I really enjoyed were ones that put history in context, such as when the English leaders choose roses – red or white – to indicate which side they were on. Richard Plantaganet (to be Duke of York) chooses white for the House of York and Somerset chooses red for the House of Lancaster.

Plantagenet: Let him that is true-born gentleman
And stands upon the honor of his birth,
If he suppose that I have pleaded truth,
From oft his brier pluck a white rose with me.

Somerset: Let him that is no coward nor no flatterer,
But dare maintain the party of the truth,
Pluck a red rose from off this thorn with me. (II.iv.27-33)

I liked the symbolism here. Of course, it’s pretty obvious, given the fact that the roses became symbols of the movement. What’s less obvious in the play is the argument that led to the division: in history, Henry VI was still an infant when his father died. In the play, it’s obvious he’s not old enough to rule until later (the play spans 20 years or so). So their argument is one of power: who will take the throne or lead the country? The arguments among the English nobles seemed undeveloped to me in the play, and the arguments indicate a lack of focus and unity among the English, which are detrimental to their empire.

As the play progresses, England loses control of their previously held locations in France. I felt like Talbot, the great warrior, was supposed to be a key patriotic leader; his conversations with his son and both of their subsequent deaths had potential for being a profound sentimental moment. Yet, it fell flat for me in the context of the rest of the petty arguments.

The end of the play introduces Margaret of Anjou as the bride of the inexperienced young Henry VI. From what I’ve read about Part 2 and Part 3, French-born Margaret is going to have a much greater role in ruling the country than the weak Henry will. I’m looking forward to what will happen.

As I mentioned, although I did enjoy sorting out the details of the play, as a whole, it was not satisfying reading. Although the Sparks’ Note guide I consulted provided a number of “key quotations” from the play, nothing really stood out to me as I read. It is probably a play that I should reread, but to be honest, I think there is much more to look forward to in the subsequent Henry VI plays. I look forward to seeing Shakespeare’s writing and plot development improve!

This is my first post for Allie’s Shakespeare Month.

  1. Harold Bloom, in his volume Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, uses terms like “bad” “botched” and “crude,” but of course we know we must take Professor Bloom with a grain of salt
  2. Family lines in such distant history are not very reliable, so it is very possible that I’m not at all related. But, since the line as it stands indicates I am, I felt a connection to Margaret anyway. I look forward to seeing her role in the subsequent Henry VI plays as well!
Reviewed on January 5, 2012

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I *might* get to this one and the next two if I finish all the other plays on my list during the month. I am pretty unfamiliar with this one-maybe because it is bad according to Bloom? 😉

    Thanks for the review, and participating in Shakespeare month! Good luck with the next two-I look forward to your thoughts.

    • Allie » I’ve been feeling rather clueless about the history plays for years, but I finally jumped in to Richard III last year. It’s sometimes called a history play and sometimes called a tragedy, so either way it was a nice intro to the histories. I’m hoping I’ll finish these three histories and get to read a COMEDY or ROMANCE or TRAGEDY or something this month too, but we’ll see how it goes.

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