King Henry VI, Part I
King Henry VI — king of England and various regions in France; the son of Henry V
Charles — the Dauphin of France
Gloucester — regent until Henry is old enough to rule; he and Winchester are in a feud
Winchester — head of the English church; Gloucester's nemesis
Richard Plantagenet — later known as York; his father once had a claim to the throne of England before Henry IV killed him
Talbot — English general of the troops in France; Talbot is so feared by the French that, when he is captured, they have archers guard him while he sleeps
Joan — also known as Joan of Arc
Somerset — an English lord who argues with Richard Plantagenet
Suffolk — an English lord
Edmund Mortimer — Richard Plantagenet's uncle; Earl of March
Burgundy — a French lord
Bedford — an English general
Alençon — a French lord
Reignier — Duke of Anjou
Bastard of Orléans — a French lord
Exeter — an English lord; Exeter becomes a kind of chorus, remarking on the problems caused by internal dissension and strife in England and abroad
Warwick — an English lord
Salisbury — an English soldier
Gargrave — an English soldier
Glansdale — an English soldier
Vernon — one of Somerset's men
Basset — one of York's men
Sir William Lucy — a messenger
John — Talbot's son
Margaret — Reignier's daughter, captured by Suffolk
Countess of Auvergne — a French woman
Sir John Fastolf — a cowardly English soldier (not the same as Falstaff)
Woodville — the warden of the Tower of London
Master Gunner — a French soldier
Governor — the governor of Paris
General — the general of Bordeaux
Shepherd — Joan's father
King Henry VI, Part I, written about 1592, is one of Shakespeare's earliest plays. True to historical events, it begins seven years after the Battle of Agincourt. King Henry V is dead, replaced by his son, Henry VI. This play centers on the Wars of the Roses and covers the events that caused the loss of Britain's territories in France.
The authorship of the play was once in question. A few scholars have hypothesized that Thomas Nashe wrote parts of King Henry VI, Part I; others believe Shakespeare wrote only the scene in the Temple Garden and the battle scenes. The questions to be asked are: Why would the playwright collaborate with other writers so early in his career? Why would authors want to work with a new playwright?
Shakespeare was fascinated with the roles of kings in history and wrote two more plays about Henry VI: King Henry VI, Part II and Part III. Interestingly, Shakespeare had no problem with chronology: the second two plays are said to have been written first, although the later publication of the plays does not reflect their order of composition.
For a young playwright to take on such a formidable task as writing a series of historical plays must have been daunting. Perhaps he honed his stagecraft skills with The Comedy of Errors. Yet, most scholars agree that he crafted King Henry VI first, then followed that success with plays that traced the years after Henry VI's death. Later in his career Shakespeare decided to add to his portfolio of kings and wrote about the history prior to Henry VI's kingship, including that of his father Henry V.
The writing of historical plays was one of the reasons for Shakespeare's theatrical success. The Elizabethan public held a fascination for kings of the past, and to see their lives unfold on the stage became a treasure that helped mold patriotic sentiment.
Once again Shakespeare probably used Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland as his primary source, focusing on the history of the houses of York and Lancaster in the Wars of the Roses.
Henry V, king of England and parts of France, has died, and his young son Henry VI is on the throne. Charles, the Dauphin of France, is nurturing a rebellion across the channel, and rifts among the nobles in England are festering, notably between the houses of York and Lancaster (which will eventually become the Wars of the Roses). Emboldened by the exploits of Joan of Arc, the French attack Talbot at Orléans. Henry VI manages to retake Orléans by night in a surprise attack.
In England, Richard Plantagenet and the Duke of Somerset have a disagreement concerning the letter of a law. The two men ask others to show their support for their respective positions: those supporting Richard pick a white rose, and those supporting Somerset pick a red one. After talking with his uncle, Edmund Mortimer, Richard is convinced that the throne more rightfully belongs to the house of York than young King Henry. Meanwhile, Winchester and Gloucester, guardians of the young king, continue a feud of their own.
Back in France, Joan drives the English from Rouen, but an English counterattack gets it back. Joan now convinces the Duke of Burgundy to switch over to the French side. Talbot marches against him, and Henry orders Richard and the Duke of Somerset to reinforce Talbot in the battle. Somerset and Richard continue to feud however, and while Talbot fights valiantly, he is slain in the combat when the reinforcements never arrive.
Richard and Somerset set aside their differences long enough to capture Joan of Arc and burn her as a witch. In the meantime, Gloucester tries to set up a match between Henry and Margaret, the daughter of a French lord, in order to force a peace between France and England. The Earl of Suffolk, however, introduces another Margaret (of Anjou) to Henry in an attempt to get him to marry her. Suffolk hopes to use her to control Henry, which leads to the action of King Henry VI, Part II.
King Henry VI, Part I depicts England's struggle to retain its military and political control over French territories gained by Henry V. The play compresses early events of the early reign of Henry VI, including the feuding of English lords and the eventual loss of half the French lands.
While Shakespeare drew on historical records, he condensed dates and events, reordering things to create drama. For example, Henry VI was actually only nine months old when he became king, while in the play he is a teenager. What's more, one of the play's most striking scenes, in the Temple Garden, in which the followers of Richard Plantagenet and Somerset pick white and red roses as emblems of their opposing views, is complete fabrication. It does explain the origin of the Wars of the Roses, an affair whose actual origins are boring and complicated.
Shakespeare gives equal voice to two predominant theories on the cause of fifteenth-century British turmoil: (1) history is the result of human choices and actions, and (2) the violence of the fifteenth century was some sort of divine punishment for the murder of King Richard II.
The warrior culture of King Henry V is changing around Henry VI. After Henry V's death, lords abandon a unity for the sake of king and country and return to plotting their own advancement. War loses its chivalrous quality. The deaths of Talbot and his son signal the death of “romantic” chivalry.
While King Henry V (which was written later) portrays a man who claims his birthright and lives up to the full potential of his masculinity, King Henry VI, Part I acknowledges the potential weaknesses of men. Sometimes, as in the case of Queen Elizabeth I, a woman must step up to the plate and take charge even if it means usurping a traditional male role.
“Halcyon days” (Act I, Scene II).
“She's beautiful, and therefore to be wooed; She is a woman, therefore to be won” (Act V, Scene III).