Introduction: Henry VI, Part 1

January 9, 2011 in Introduction

Henry VI, Part 1 invites controversy. The First Folio prints it chronologically among Shakespeare’s histories, first of three Henry VI plays, diverging from order of composition. Thereby Heminge and Condell imply an intended sequence, but Henry VI, Part 1 may be a ‘prequel’ after The First Part of the Contention betwixt the Two Famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster (2 Henry VI) printed in 1594 and The true Tragedie of Richard Duke of Yorke of 1595 (3 Henry VI). In A Groatsworth of Wit (1592) Robert Greene attacks Shakespeare as “an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde” who “is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.” Greene parodies an already well-known line from Tragedie of Richard, so when Henslowe’s Diary lists a new titled play performed at this time called, “harey the vj”, it appears to be Part 1. Confirming Henslowe, in Piers Pennyless (1592 ) Thomas Nashe celebrated the current impact of this Henry VI, saying that its hero, Talbot, would be “joyed” that “hee should triumphe againe on the Stage, and have his bones newe embalmed with the teares of ten thousand spectators, at least (at severall times) who, in the Tragedian that represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.”

Perhaps Shakespeare, only partly involved in the composition of these plays, claimed a greater role than other contributors – possibly Greene and Nashe. Composite authorship invites critical uneasiness about the scripts, reinforced by Part 1‘s harshness to Joan of Arc. While based on chronicles of Henry VI’s reign by Hall and Holinshed, the plays are not unified by this ineffective king, who succeeded his father as an infant, though his incompetence leads to the loss of England’s French possessions and the Wars of the Roses. After the funeral of Henry V the self-destructive English factions in Part 1 put themselves at risk, partly from the energies of three Frenchwomen: the Countess of Auvergne, who is out-witted by Talbot; Jeanne la Pucelle, who defeats and kills him only to be captured and executed herself; and Margaret of Anjou, who introduces a new amatory interest by Act V as the intended spouse of Henry VI. Jeanne d’Arc called herself “la pucelle” (the virgin), which permits puns on this phonetically as “puzel” (whore) as part of hostile presentation. In the script she conjures up devils, and lies freely, as well as exhorting the French powerfully. Yet, feminists to the contrary, hers is the most incisive, complex and paradoxical character in the play, She comes close to being a tragic figure comparable to Lady Macbeth, despite the script’s nationalist overtones.

Though not favored by critics, the play contains iconic scenes, such as the Temple Garden one (II.iv), where factions choose roses providing heraldry for the Wars of the Roses: white for Yorkists, red for Lancastrians. The play revels in action in the French wars: duels showing the actors’ fighting skills. Latterly the play has vindicated its stage-worthiness, often in the three-play series, as with Benson’s Stratford performances of 1906. The script provoked Bernard Shaw’s recension with similar characters in St. Joan (1924). Much modified, Part 1 featured in the notable Barton-Hall series celebrating the fourth centenary of Shakespeare’s birth at Stratford (1964). Its multiple authorship does not preclude stage effectiveness.

Contributed by Hugh Macrae Richmond

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