Henry VI, Part 1 Essay - Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 (Vol. 63)

William Shakespeare

Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 (Vol. 63)


Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3

Classified among Shakespeare's earliest works, the chronicle history plays designated as Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 detail the late medieval conflict between England and France, as well as the Wars of the Roses—the long civil war between the houses of York and Lancaster in fifteenth-century England. Characterized by frequent artistic lapses and an episodic structure, the Henry VI plays were, until the mid-twentieth century, the subject of considerable dispute concerning their authorship, with a number of critics arguing that Shakespeare collaborated with contemporary playwrights in composing these works. By the late-twentieth century, however, doubts concerning Shakespeare's role in writing the three parts of Henry VI had almost entirely been put aside; scholars instead focused on the diverse array of issues raised in the plays. Principal among these continues to be a prevailing interest in Shakespeare's treatment and manipulation of historical fact. Critics acknowledge that the dramatist inverted historical order, transferred events and characters, and compressed and expanded the material he found in his sources—including his principal text, Edward Halle's chronicle of English history entitled The Union of Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1548). Others have identified numerous scenes and incidents—for example, the love affair between Margaret and Suffolk—which Shakespeare likely invented to suit his artistic goals. These and other dramatic alterations of history continue to intrigue scholars. A number of modern critics have also been drawn to thematic and structural aspects of the plays, such as the overall design and artistic integrity of the dramas, as well as their significant comic aspects. Finally, Shakespeare's representation of women in Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3, especially his dramatic treatment of Margaret of Anjou and Joan la Pucelle (the historical Joan of Arc), remain popular subjects among contemporary feminist commentators.

Shakespeare's interpretation and reorganization of history in the Henry VI plays has elicited considerable interest among critics, many of whom have sought to understand the dramatist's method of historiography and broad view of English history as it is illustrated in these early works. By seeing Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 and 3 as works of history rather than simply imaginative literature, Philip Brockbank (see Further Reading) concentrates on the theme of civil dissension leading to anarchy, and observes the ways in which Shakespeare reshaped history. Wayne L. Billings (1972) regards the subject of history in Henry VI through the lens of heroic irony, discussing the principal figures in these works as disastrously flawed embodiments of the heroic ideal who lead England into turmoil by demonstrating cowardice and disgraceful behavior. Thomas Cartelli (1994) studies social history in Henry VI, Part 2 by probing the doomed peasant revolt headed by Jack Cade as an intriguing look into the class dynamics of early modern England. Gwyn Williams (1974) examines Shakespeare's free interpretation of history in regard to his invented love affair between Margaret and Suffolk. While noting that historical evidence for such a romantic involvement is slight, Williams sees the relationship as a significant early example of tragic Shakespearean lovers, and an apt illustration of historical veracity subordinated by dramatic necessity.

By examining the design and thematic texture of Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 and 3, contemporary critics have sought to discern in the plays sources of artistic unity and thematic cohesiveness. Acknowledging the flawed and episodic state of the dramas, E. Pearlman (1992) nonetheless observes unifying themes in Shakespeare's depiction of Henry's personal shortcomings and in the dramatization of the decline of the House of Lancaster. Sigurd Burckhardt (1968) views Henry VI, Part 1 as a dramatic whole, connected by the theme of troubled monarchical succession and by the ceremonial mode principally demonstrated in the noble figure of Talbot. Faye L. Kelly (1973) approaches all three of the Henry VI plays via the theme of oaths, seeing the making and breaking of formal pledges as a central structural element. Turning specifically to Henry VI, Part 3, Raymond V. Utterback (1978) remarks on the subject of legitimate kingship, while Maurice Hunt (1999) points to the drama's thematic integrity by tracing the sustained motif of unnatural acts perpetrated against family, country, and God.

Other topics of contemporary critical interest in Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 include the works' comic elements and the integral role of women in these narratives. Addressing comedy, Waldo F. McNeir (1974) sees a pattern of comic resolution in the dramas when viewed as a whole, and finds significant sources of laughter and stage spectacle throughout. Donald G. Watson (1978) perceives another dimension of comedy in the Henry VI plays by concentrating on the macabre, grotesque, and elements of black humor, noting that these elements are especially apparent in stage performance. The dark portrayal of the chief female characters in the plays continues to educe commentary as well. Nancy A. Gutierrez (1990) highlights Joan de Pucelle's relegation to an inferior position, based upon her gender, in the male-defined cultural conflict between England and France in Henry VI, Part 1. Kathryn Schwarz (1998) explores male fears concerning the disruptive and enigmatic power of the feminine in the trilogy as they are personified in the figures of Joan and Queen Margaret.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

SOURCE: “The First, Second, and Third Parts of King Henry the Sixth,” in William Shakespeare: The History Plays, Twayne Publishers, 1992, pp. 22-47.

[In the essay below, Pearlman summarizes the action, major themes, and principal characters of Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3.]

The three parts of Henry the Sixth appear in consecutive order in the great 1623 folio collection of Shakespeare's works. They are placed between The Life of Henry the Fifth and The Tragedy of Richard the Third. It is generally agreed that the three plays were written during the very first years of the 1590s. There is a small body of opinion that denies exclusive authorship of these plays to Shakespeare and argues that they result from a collaborative effort in which Shakespeare played a leading role. There is even a well-developed theory that 1 Henry VI was written after Parts 2 and 3 and is therefore what has lately come to be called a “prequel.” For present purposes, the three plays will be discussed as if they were composed in the order in which they appear in the folio and as if they are all among Shakespeare's very earliest writings.

The First Part of King Henry the Sixth begins with a procession of noblemen who have assembled to mourn the death of Henry V, hero of Agincourt and conqueror of France. The Duke of Bedford grieves for his late kinsman in words that may be imagined as the first piece of historical writing to which Shakespeare ever bent what he would later call his “rough and all-unable pen.” Shakespeare was not a prodigy and Bedford's address does not mark a turning point in the history of English literature. It is nevertheless a workmanlike piece of dramatic poetry: “Hung be the heavens with black,” Bedford says, expanding his private sorrow into a universal lament:

                    yield day to night!
Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky
And with them scourge the bad revolting stars
That have consented unto Henry's death—
King Henry the Fifth, too famous to live long!
England ne'er lost a king of so much worth.


Bedford's rhetorical style leans heavily on abstraction and generalization. When he makes his appeal to such impersonal entities as the heavens, the day, and the comets, he fails to lend distinctiveness to his own character or particularize his grief. None of his injunctive verbs (“yield,” “brandish,” “scourge”) quite hits the mark. The notion that the stars have rebelliously agreed to the death of King Henry succeeds only in paying distant homage to a commonplace. Bedford's conclusion is anticlimactic and weak, especially the final phrase “of so much worth,” in which Shakespeare misses the chance to complete the measure with the concrete detail or vivid metaphor that might have brought both the orator and his abundant sorrow to life.

Although the verse is flat and artificial, the passage is not without resonance to audiences or readers of Shakespeare's history plays. Not even the most prescient and insightful hearer of these lines could guess that the twenty-five- or twenty-six-year-old William Shakespeare who wrote them would devote a great part of his intelligence and working life in the decade of the 1590s to the composition of a series of eight plays that pivot around the heroic life and untimely death of the King Harry who is memorialized by Bedford. Four of these plays (the so-called first tetralogy consisting of the three parts of Henry VI and their sequel Richard III) would deal with the consequences of King Henry's early death. Four others (the second tetralogy of Richard II, the two parts of Henry IV, and Henry V) would examine the events that culminated with the reign of the “too famous” king celebrated in Bedford's eulogy. It is pleasing though illusory to imagine that Shakespeare intuitively understood that the death of the hero king could be dramatized as the crucial event of the hundred years of English history—from the deposition of Richard of Bordeaux to the violent death at Bosworth field of Richard of Gloucester—which the poet would claim as his particular province. Nevertheless, it was with Bedford's first speech that Shakespeare initiated the epic circular journey that both begins and ends with Henry's death. In the three parts of Henry VI, Shakespeare dramatized the loss of France, the bleeding of England, and what he would later remember in the last and most eloquent chorus in Henry V as the “blasting” of the “world's best garden … which oft our stage has shown” (Epilogue, 1. 7).

Shakespeare's first history, although to modern eyes the least of his accomplishments, must have had an extraordinary impact in its own time. The popularity of The First Part of Henry the Sixth is seen not only in its amazing succession of sequels but also in contemporary testimony. Shakespeare's sometime rival Thomas Nashe used an example from this play to demonstrate that the threater has moral value and may function as “a reproof to these degenerate effeminate days of ours”: “How would it have joyed brave Talbot (the terror of the French) to think that after he had lain two hundred years in his tomb, he should triumph again on the stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators at least (at several times), who, in the tragedian that represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding” (Salgādo, Eyewitnesses, 16). Nashe captures the immediacy and excitement of a new kind of theatrical experience for an audience that had not yet been sated with innumerable bland historical dramas.

Despite Nashe's enthusiasm 1 Henry VI seems shapeless and unfocused. The play is a hodgepodge of competing actions. The language lacks variety; long swatches consist of formal, sometimes stilted, and occasionally monotonous blank verse that do not display the rich metaphorical and imagistic complexity that becomes Shakespeare's hallmark. The characters are not effectively differentiated. Except for Talbot himself, the earls and dukes all speak in the same florid and excited idiom. Moreover, the plot lacks resolution and comes not so much to a climax as to a halt. It would be idolatrous to deny that these (and other) flaws make it difficult to give one's wholehearted support to 1 Henry VI, but they do not make it either unapproachable or unrewarding.

1 Henry VI consists of a number of separate actions that are not so much integrated as they are intertwined. The most coherent and important of these is the series of English sieges, thrusts, and counter-attacks aimed against the forces of France. Shakespeare draws with some care the contrast between English John Talbot, the commander of one side, and Joan of Arc, the inspiration of the other. A second major action is the dynastic squabble between Richard Plantagenet (later the Duke of York) and the party of the white rose, and their antagonists the Lancastrians, the party of the red rose, led in this play by the Earl of Somerset. Still a third action is the continuing antagonism between the protector Humphrey, the good Duke of Gloucester, and his uncle the ambitious clergyman (later bishop) Winchester. Finally, at the end of the play, the Earl of Suffolk emerges as a major figure when he arranges a marriage between King Henry and Margaret, the powerful queen whose furious intensity dominates so many scenes during the three subsequent plays in the first tetralogy. The play is certainly episodic, but each episode has its own rewards.

The most memorable character, to Nashe as well as to modern audiences, is the heroic Talbot, in whom is embodied the most cherished values of chivalric civilization. Against Talbot are arrayed two very powerful groups of enemies. The first consists of the forces of France, inspired and led by the witch Joan, who are eager to reclaim lands recently taken from them by the great Henry V. The second and ultimately more dangerous enemy is the inability of Talbot's fellow nobles to set aside private grudge, petty antagonism, and dynastic rivalry in order to support the grander national purpose. The combination of external wars and domestic subversion leads both to Talbot's death and to the near anarchy dramatized in the later plays.

Talbot's world, very much idealized in this play, is built on values that remind us that Shakespeare exalts a civilization that we need not sorrow to have lost. Feudal society is erected on sharp distinctions between nobility and commoners. It is marked by loyalty and fidelity to the king or leader; although betrayal is frequent, it is always greeted not only with condemnation but also with shock and surprise. Status is ascribed rather than earned—that is, dependent on birth rather than achievement. Courage and skill in battle are principal virtues. Great value is attached to political and military leadership, especially that which is revealed in oratorical performance. The giving and taking of oaths is extremely important. Those who give their bond are expected to keep it; oath breakers are, like those who show cowardice, roundly contemned and scorned. The aristocrats like Talbot who embody these virtues are accustomed to command and are consequently distinguished by their overbearing manners and extremely short tempers. They are always on the verge of emotional explosion and their swords are never far from their hands. They are sensitive to insults to their birth, status, and courage, and they routinely subordinate private and domestic relationships to public and military performance. In Shakespeare's feudal world, the roles alloted to women are clearly demarcated, and as a result the occasional woman who intrudes into the world of soldiership and government must be regarded as perverse or unnatural. Chivalric notions underlie not just this play but every one of Shakespeare's histories.

A definitive statement of these values occurs during the encounter in act 4 between Falstaff and Talbot. Falstaff has run from battle once again, and Talbot fulfills his threat to humiliate him by stripping the garter (the insignia of his knightly order) from his leg. Talbot blames Falstaff for the loss of the battle and for the deaths of twelve hundred men. He is shocked that “such cowards” are allowed “to wear / This ornament of knighthood” (4.1.28-29), and he proceeds to construct a mythic history of a favorite ideology:

When first this order was ordained, my lords,
Knights of the Garter were of noble birth,
Valiant and virtuous, full of haughty courage,
Such as were grown to credit by the wars;
Not fearing death nor shrinking for distress,
But always resolute in most extremes.
But he that is not furnished in this sort
Doth but usurp the sacred name of knight,
Profaning this most honorable order,
And should (if I were worthy to be judge)
Be quite degraded, like a hedge-born swain
That doth presume to boast of gentle blood.


Talbot knows that true knights are both courageous and noble by nature and are most resilient when most in peril. If they betray their heritage and show cowardice, they must be, as Talbot says, “degraded”—that is, reduced in rank—to the level of a presumptuous “hedge-born swain” or homeless peasant. He also knows that the Order of the Garter was not established after a secular manner, but rather “ordained”—a carefully chosen word that is resonant with spiritual and religious significance. The implications of “ordained” are extended in the contrast between the “sacred” name of the order and its “profaning” by cowardice. Throughout Talbot's speech a holy and romanticized past contrasts with a fallen present.

It is around such notions that Shakespeare organizes the conflict between Talbot and Joan and between England and France. Talbot embodies the ideals of chivalry. When he and his six thousand troops are surrounded by twenty-three thousand Frenchmen, Talbot “enacted wonders with the sword and lance” (1.1.122), only to succumb when “a base Walloon … / Thrust [him] with a spear into the back” (137-38). Shakespeare gives credence to the myth that an individual knight armed with traditional weapons can carry the day in a field of thirty thousand soldiers, and that only a “base Walloon” would lower himself to the indignity of an attack from the rear. When captured by the French, Talbot “craved death / Rather than [be] so vile esteemed” (1.4.32-33) as to be exchanged for anyone but his social equal. When the French enemy wisely rest in safety behind their fortifications, Talbot thinks their unchivalric tactics are rude and unsportsmanlike: “Base muleteers of France! / Like peasant foot-boys do they keep the walls / And dare not take up arms like gentlemen” (3.1.68-70).

Orthodox and reverent, Talbot expresses contempt for enemies who are led by a woman and are presumed to consort with devils: “Let them practice and converse with spirits. / God is our fortress” (2.1.25-26). Talbot is most moved by the “chance” (1.4.71) death by cannon fire of Salisbury, that great “mirror of all martial men” (74). His violent longing for revenge takes the form of hyperbolical and sadistic invective perhaps characteristic of feudal aristocracy but difficult to honor today: “Pucelle or pussel [i.e., pizzle, prick], Dolphin or dogfish, / Your hearts I'll stamp out-with my horse's heels / And make a quagmire of your mangled brains” (107-9). Talbot is proud to kill five Frenchmen for every drop of blood lost by Salisbury.

Yet the same Talbot so furious in war is also capable of courtly deference to his sovereign:

          This arm that hath reclaimed
To your obedience fifty fortresses. …
Lets fall his sword before your highness' feet
And with submissive loyalty of heart
Ascribes the glory of his conquest got
First to my God and next unto your grace.

(3.4.5-6, 9-12)

While Talbot does not forget to vaunt his conquests, he can also allow his sword to fall before weak King Henry's feet and proudly acknowledge that his submission and loyalty are not of the surface but from the heart.

Opposite to Talbot in almost all respects is Joan of Arc, who is not male but mannish, demonic rather than Christian, ambitious rather than deferential, unchaste or at least the constant target of sexual innuendo, and, worst of all, unequivocally base-born. Joan embodies the polar opposite of the orderliness and orthodoxy of chivalric tradition. As a consequence, Shakespeare depicts her in extraordinarily unflattering terms. Joan's successes on the battlefield are ascribed not to military prowess but to “hellish mischief” (3.2.39). The appeal to French nationalism that attracts waffling Burgundy to her side is dismissed as mere playacting. In her last appearance, Joan first repudiates her shepherd father, then attempts to forestall her own execution by claiming to be with child by either the Dauphin, or Alencon, or Reignier. She is offered no compassion by the English or by Shakespeare and, condemned as a witch and strumpet, leaves the stage while York abuses her as a “foul accursèd minister of hell!” (5.4.93). It is an ugly scene.

Even though Joan is the antithesis of Talbot and is allowed a few temporary military successes, the play makes it clear that the real cause of the English failure is internal division. Consumed by their own ambitions, the English nobles cannot refrain from petty squabble, from name-calling and duels, or from countermining each other's achievements. The fault is not in chivalry itself, but in the failure of its nobility to live up to the ideals they profess. In the first scene of the play the noble Bedford utters a prayer that his peers will all too often ignore: “Henry the Fifth, thy ghost I invocate: / Prosper this realm, keep it from civil broils” (1.1.53-54). The King himself, exasperated but powerless to intervene between Winchester and Gloucester, recognizes that “Civil dissension is a viperous worm / That gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth” (3.1.72-73). Eventually, Talbot finds himself defeated by the forces of the French while his would-be allies Somerset and York debate over who is most at fault for abandoning him. Exeter asserts that

          no simple man that sees
This jarring discord of nobility,
This shouldering of each other in the court,
This factious bandying of their favorites,
But sees it doth presage some ill event.


Sir William Lucy (a character who is little more than a choric voice) expands on this important lesson. “The fraud of England, not the force of France, / Hath now entrapped the noble-minded Talbot (4.4.36-37). “The vulture of sedition” (47), he concludes, has betrayed “The conquest of our scarce-cold conqueror / That ever-living man of memory, / Henry the Fifth.” (4.3.51-53). The heirs of the great Henry, whose revered memory hangs heavy over each event of this long play, have destroyed themselves with sloth and sedition.

1 Henry VI focuses on the decline of chivalric civilization and the disorder in England. Yet audiences are likely to be struck not so much by the ideological coherence of the whole as by a few memorable scenes. The most striking event in the play is the sequence of scenes in act 4 in which both Talbot and his son young John Talbot meet their deaths. The two compete in self-sacrifice and familial loyalty. Their devotion to each other is highly stylized and mannered, exemplary rather than realistic. The Talbots' mutual reverence directly contrasts with the antagonism in other aristocratic English families and with the parody of family loyalty in the nasty encounter between Joan and her peasant father. The embrace of Talbot and his equally noble son may be artificial and too highly patterned, but it is also a daring and pioneering piece of writing, if only because Shakespeare attempts to embody the theme of loyalty in a dramatic action.

For many readers the Temple Garden scene is another instance in which the young Shakespeare can be observed writing with unusual authority. In this scene Shakespeare momentarily liberates himself from too exact fidelity to the chronicles. He imagines an event (for which his sources offer no precedent or clue) in which a set of young and passionate noblemen who are engaged in legal study enlarge a disagreement over some “nice sharp quillets of the law” (2.4.17) into a conflict that threatens the entire kingdom. At first the bystanders try to neutralize the combatants Plantagenet and Somerset by making jest of their disagreements. But the conflict uncontrollably escalates and one by one the bystanders are forced to choose a side. Each party accuses the other of cowardice and fear. Plantagenet raises the stakes when he calls Somerset a “peevish boy” (76); Somerset, equally unrestrained, responds by describing Plantagenet as a “yeoman.” Insults to manhood and ancestry lead directly to “blood-drinking hate” on both sides. Warwick is left to prophesy that “this brawl today, / Grown to this faction in the Temple garden, / Shall send, between the red rose and the white, / A thousand souls to death and deadly night” (124-27). The scene is richly theatrical. The quarrel is about nothing, and the young men are filled with hot tempers and adolescent energy. Ritual plucking of roses edges the scene toward the arena of allegory, while vigorous flyting frees the language from the steady thump of iambics, and for a welcome moment drums and guns and wounds give way to a promising symbolic psychology.

In another scene that stands out (4.1), Shakespeare makes a first attempt at a practice that he raises to a fine art in later plays. He places in close juxtaposition a series of events that have a common thematic subject—in this case an exploration of feudal values. First the Governor of Paris swears an oath of fidelity to King Henry. Then Talbot strips Falstaff of the garter and comments on the history of chivalry. Just as Falstaff is banished, the news arrives that Burgundy has repudiated the oaths that have bound him to the English king. Gloucester, ever the true believer, is shocked: “Can this be so? / That in alliance, amity, and oaths / There should be found such false dissembling guile?” (4.1.61-63). Following hard upon this revelation, Vernon and Basset, servants respectively of Gloucester and Winchester, come storming onto the stage to ask that they be allowed to tilt or duel because of the insults that each feels he has suffered. The good but ineffectual king is once again shocked: “what madness rules in brainsick men / When for so slight and frivolous a cause / Such factions emulations shall arise!” (111-13). The king attempts to adjudicate the quarrel but in the process commits some grave procedural errors. The whole sequence—the taking of oaths and their repudiation, Talbot's high-minded exaltation of the theory of chivalry and its deficient application in the case of Vernon and Basset—shows Shakespeare for the first time learning to represent ideas in dramatic form. His intelligent experimentation points to better things to come.


1 Henry VI focuses on wars of territorial conquest in France but also depicts a rivalry among the major aristocratic families that is both ferocious and unending. In 2 Henry VI, competition between England's two great aristocratic families has become the dominant concern. The pious and inattentive Lancastrian king, Henry VI, proves to be far too weak to control his aspiring wife, Margaret of Anjou, and her self-serving advisors, while Richard Plantagenet, now the Duke of York, has emerged as an ambitious politician who is unencumbered by moral scruple. The rivalry of King and Duke is continuous. The background against which the dynastic squabble is played out has also changed. The principal tension in 2 Henry VI is no longer between the English and the French but between the governing aristocratic oligarchy on the one hand and the commons on the other. Out of this conflict arises the political design and political meaning of the play.

The most memorable figures in 1 Henry VI were English John Talbot and the French witch Joan; the most memorable figure in 2 Henry VI is the Kentish rebel Jack Cade, who leads a revolt against the feudal establishment. Cade's rebellion succeeds militarily for a tense interval but collapses without leaving a permanent mark. It is a much tougher challenge to depict a domestic revolt than to mount the easy appeal to national pride that distinguishes (or disfigures) 1 Henry VI. In the first play, the English cause is unquestionably just while the French are cowards or demons. In 2 Henry VI the enemy may be impoverished, uneducated, and contemptible, but it is still English. Shakespeare pillories Cade and his followers and unequivocally supports established government, but he allows powerful popular forces a great deal of scope and play before repudiating them. He flirts with very dangerous material. It is only at the end of the play, the revolt suppressed and order restored, that an orthodox monarchist perspective is again asserted.

In 1 Henry VI the common people appear only intermittently: among those who take their turn on the stage are the gunner's boy who is responsible for the death of old Salisbury, the servants of Gloucester and Winchester who stone each other in the streets, and the French sentinels at Orleans, “poor servitors, / When others sleep upon their quiet beds, / Constrained to watch in darkness, rain, and cold” (2.1.5-7). In 2 Henry VI, Shakespeare takes a great step forward when he transforms the commons into an important constituent of the polity. (It is not always clear to whom the word “commons” refers. Sometimes Shakespeare seems to mean commons as in House of Commons—i.e., prosperous landowners, merchants, lawyers; at other times, “commons” seems to refer to butchers, clothiers, beggars, soldiers.) Shakespeare prepares his audience for Jack Cade's rebellion by representing a series of encounters between rich and poor. A few humble villagers attempt to deliver a petition to Gloucester early in the play; Horner, a tradesman, is charged with treason by his apprentice and brought before the court; Simpcox the beggar's boast that he has been miraculously healed is publicly examined; the disgraced Duchess of Gloucester is forced to walk penitentially among the “rabble”; Suffolk,...

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Criticism: Character Studies

Nancy A. Gutierrez (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “Gender and Value in 1 Henry VI: The Role of Joan de Pucelle,” in Theatre Journal, Vol. 42, No. 2, May, 1990, pp. 183-93.

[In the essay below, Gutierrez examines Shakespeare's representation of Joan de Pucelle in Henry VI, Part 1 as a problematic, feminine scapegoat used by men to gain power. Gutierrez notes that such a representation reflects a patriarchal desire to eliminate female threats by transforming them into actions that bolster male power.]

Among the many critical problems resulting from the uncertain text of Shakespeare's 1 Henry VI is the theatrical presentation of Joan de Pucelle, history's Joan of Arc. She is, at various...

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Kathryn Schwarz (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Fearful Simile: Stealing the Breech in Shakespeare's Chronicle Plays,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 2, Summer, 1998, pp. 140-67.

[In the excerpt below, Schwarz studies the complex portrayal of women in Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3, focusing on the depiction of Joan as an outsider and as a contradictory embodiment of extremes. Schwarz also analyzes the portrayal of Margaret as both a conventional object of desire and a disruptive role-player.]


Henry VI, Part 1 defines Joan with relentless thoroughness as an outsider. Opposed to an English male aristocratic ideal, she is a woman, a peasant, a...

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Criticism: Henry Vi As Comedy

Waldo F. McNeir (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “Comedy in Shakespeare's Yorkist Tetralogy,” in Pacific Coast Philology, Vol. 9, April, 1974, pp. 48-55.

[In the essay below, McNeir recounts numerous elements of comedy in Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 and Richard III.]

The pattern of English history from Richard II to Richard III is comic in the sense that it includes usurpation, troubles, a respite, suffering, expiation, deliverance. Because the form of the cycle is all-inclusive, Shakespeare incorporates the condition of the damned into the comic pattern. This produces a variety of parallels and contrasts: double plots and double-dealing, incongruent elements of the pathetic and the...

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Donald G. Watson (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “The Dark Comedy of the Henry VI Plays,” in Thalia, Vol. 1, No. 2, Autumn, 1978, pp. 11-21.

[In the essay below, Watson traces the farcical, sardonic, and grotesque patterns of Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3.]

Although the three parts of Henry VI have always offered more than their fair share of grist for the mills of historical scholarship, only recently have they attracted much appreciation or critical interest as plays. After several fine productions and interpretive essays, it no longer seems necessary to excuse them as the products of composite authorship, an inchoate genre, or a young playwright's apprenticeship. This essay...

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Criticism: Playing With History

Wayne L. Billings (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: “Ironic Lapses: Plotting in Henry VI,” in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. 5, No. 1, April, 1972, pp. 27-49.

[In the essay below, Billings links the historical failures of the characters in Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 to Shakespeare's theme of a decline in heroic virtues and ideals, and examines the structural role of heroic irony in the plays.]

Henry VI ironically adapts the conventions of heroic drama to the matter of the Lancastrian losses, first of France and secondly of England. So dominant are the irony and the heroic conventions that the Tudor propaganda of Hall's Union and Holinshed's...

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Gwyn Williams (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “Suffolk and Margaret: A Study of Some Sections of Shakespeare's Henry VI,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 3, Summer, 1974, pp. 310-22.

[In the essay below, Williams probes Shakespeare's presentation of an unhistorical love affair between Queen Margaret of Anjou and the Earl of Suffolk as the dramatist's first attempt at staging romantic relationships with tragic consequences.]

The illicit love affair which Shakespeare gave to Queen Margaret and the Earl (afterward Duke) of Suffolk in 1 and 2 Henry VI is unhistorical. At a time when Shakespeare for his dramatic purposes was ruthlessly simplifying and trimming history, he chose...

(The entire section is 5393 words.)

Thomas Cartelli (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Jack Cade in the Garden: Class Consciousness and Class Conflict in 2 Henry VI,” in Enclosure Acts: Sexuality, Property, and Culture in Early Modern England, edited by Richard Burt and John Michael Archer, Cornell University Press, 1994, pp. 48-67.

[In the essay below, Cartelli views Jack Cade as an embodiment of modern-style class distinctions and social transgression.]


In Shakespeare's 2 Henry VI the notorious career of Jack Cade concludes with the starving rebel's defeat at the hands of Alexander Iden, a self-styled “poor esquire of Kent” whom Cade formally terms “the lord of the soil” that provides the...

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Criticism: Unity And Design

Sigurd Burckhardt (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: “‘I Am But Shadow of Myself’: Ceremony and Design in 1 Henry VI,” in Shakespearean Meanings, Princeton University Press, 1968, pp. 47-77.

[In the essay below, Burckhardt addresses the problems of integrity and episodic design in Henry VI, Part 1, finding an aesthetic unity in the ceremonial qualities of the narrative as well as in the play's thematic analogy between dramatist and God.]

It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to say anything about 1 Henry VI without raising the still vexed question of authorship. I too shall have to raise it, but I do not want to attack it frontally. I would rather state my position as a working...

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Faye L. Kelly (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: “Oaths in Shakespeare's Henry VI Plays,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 4, Autumn, 1973, pp. 357-71.

[In the essay below, Kelly explores the structural, thematic, and unifying significance of oaths—kept and broken—in Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3.]

When Pistol said to Bardolph, “A sword is an oath, and oaths must have their course” (Henry V), he was stating not only a common Elizabethan belief, but also a principle of Shakespearean dramatic construction. In drama as in life, an oath calls for action. In drama, whenever a character swears to do something or not to do something, plot takes form as a direct result of his...

(The entire section is 7249 words.)

Raymond V. Utterback (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “Public Men, Private Wills, and Kingship in Henry VI, Part III,” in Renaissance Papers, 1978, pp. 47-54.

[In the essay below, Utterback considers the topics of political instability and the legitimate inheritance of the English crown in Henry VI, Part 3.]

In the opening scene of Henry VI, Part III, Shakespeare faced a difficult expository problem. In solving it he devised a beginning powerful enough to epitomize the prior historical situation and to lead credibly to the play's subsequent involved actions. Further, and perhaps more important, he introduced the fundamental inconsistencies exhibited in the characters' motivations and...

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Maurice Hunt (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “Unnaturalness in Shakespeare's 3 Henry VI,” in English Studies, Vol. 80, No. 2, April, 1999, pp. 146-67.

[In the essay below, Hunt locates in Henry VI, Part 3 a unity of design based upon the motif of unnaturalness, particularly in the unnatural disinheritance of Henry's son, which becomes a driving force in subsequent incidents in the drama.]

While popular during Shakespeare's lifetime, 3 Henry VI became relatively unpopular with audiences and readers alike in later centuries, partly because this chronicle history play has appeared loosely episodic rather than unified and rendered coherent by a principle informing history.1...

(The entire section is 10866 words.)

Further Reading


Bernthal, Craig A. “Treason in the Family: The Trial of Thumpe v. Horner.” Shakespeare Quarterly 42, No. 1 (Spring 1991): 44-54.

Considers Peter Thumpe's act of informing on his master for treason in Henry VI, Part 2 within the cultural contexts of Tudor England.

Berryman, John. “2 Henry VI” and “3 Henry VI.” In Berryman's Shakespeare, edited by John Haffenden, pp. 308-13. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.

Two essays, originally published in 1958, that contribute to the debate concerning the authorship controversy of the Henry VI plays and examine...

(The entire section is 705 words.)