Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1014
Henry VI, Part I is the first play in William Shakespeare’s first tetralogy, a group of four plays consisting of Henry VI, Parts I, II, and III, and Richard III. The entire tetralogy covers the period leading up to the establishment of the Tudor line of kings on the throne of England in 1485.
Set in the period of factionalism and warfare leading up to the unification of England under the strong Tudor monarchs, Henry VI, Part I has the development of English nationalism as one of its themes. Primarily, the play shows the disintegration of a strongly centralized and self-aware nation imagined to exist under the reign of Henry V as a way of demonstrating the detrimental effects of factionalism, weak leadership, and rebellion.
The opening scene idealizes Henry V, and, as Winchester and Gloster begin to argue about who should guide the new, young, and inexperienced Henry VI, the issues that would eventually result in the Wars of the Roses are raised. Primary among these is the question of right rule. Because Henry VI is in his minority, the authority to govern England does not rest in the king. Rather, it rests in those who are able to control the king. Both religious and secular authorities vie for this control from the beginning of the play; eventually, the disputants fall into two parties: the Lancastrian and the Yorkist. Many of the differences between the two camps seem petty, but they boil down to whether or not Richard, the duke of York, has a claim to the English throne.
In a scene that is not historical, Shakespeare gives an origin for the division between the houses of York and Lancaster: those who support York pluck white roses; those who favor Lancaster pluck red ones. The actual dispute that initiates the plucking of the roses is not revealed to the audience, and it is soon forgotten, making the entire scene seem petty. However, the pettiness is not without its significance. Later in the play, Henry VI wears a red rose, attempting to argue that the color of the rose he wears does not matter and that the country should be unified. This small decision about a petty dispute alienates the Yorkist side, leading, in the course of the rest of the tetralogy, to a great deal of bloodshed and warfare. The red rose and the white, here separated, eventually will be united in the Tudor line at the end of Richard III (pr. c. 1592-1593, pb. 1597).
Much modern scholarship has been devoted to exploring the complexities of Joan la Pucelle (better known as Joan of Arc). Instead of finding the misogynistic caricature expected from a pro-English, anti-French account of this portion of the Hundred Years’ War, feminist critics and others have found a more ambiguous character, one who possesses both admirable and undesirable qualities.
Particularly admirable to these critics and to the French characters in the play is Joan’s ability to unify France. The English side of the war is fraught with chaos, confusion, and disagreement; the French side has a person around whom it can rally. For Shakespeare’s contemporaries, of course, this did not imply approval, but it opened the question of how England could maintain its strength in the face of threats from abroad that were not unlike those faced by the French in the play.
Joan’s characterization also raises issues of gender roles, both for Shakespeare and his contemporaries and for modern readers. In her character is an early version of the metatheatrical device Shakespeare employed frequently later in his career: A male actor portrays a female character who, in turn, dresses as a male. Unlike Rosalind or Portia, Joan does not pretend to be a man, but she does take on the clothing and the expected behavior of a man.
Joan’s actions can be read both as a positive attempt to overturn traditional patriarchal gender structures and as a contemptible rebellion against rightful rule. In the first four acts, Joan serves as a challenge to the usual definition of a female character engaged in acts of violence. She is described by some characters in terms that suggest her chastity, holiness, and heroism. She is successful in uniting the French forces, in battling France’s enemies, and in persuading others to join the French cause. The dauphin even offers to share his crown with her. In all this, she becomes a positive figure who demonstrates the ability to reject traditional gender roles successfully.
In the fifth act, Joan’s characterization undergoes an abrupt change. She is presented as a person who consorts with demons to gain her power. As her military strength fades, she receives scorn from the French. In her last scene, she rejects her father, who, in turn, rejects her. The moment can be read symbolically: In rejecting traditional female roles, Joan rejects patriarchal authority; because of that rejection, she is marginalized, receiving no protection from the system she rejects. Joan, therefore, marks a challenge to patriarchal authority, but a challenge that is ultimately withstood. However, Joan is not a flat character. Sufficient ambiguity remains, enabling her to be described as both virgin and strumpet, demoniac and human, powerful and weak.
In direct opposition to Joan is Talbot, the leader of the English forces in France. There is little that is ambiguous about his presentation. He is the ideal leader, as comfortable in battle as he is in the home of a countess. His role in the play is partly explained in the exchange with the countess: He is a representation of England itself, a single force united under the leadership of one man. However, factionalism at home leads to defeat abroad. Talbot’s death is tragically tied to petty disputes among the English at home.
Other scholarly work on the play has addressed the questions of collaborative authorship and order of composition. Although no absolute agreement has been reached, the general consensus is that Shakespeare wrote all or most of the play and that this play was written before the others in the tetralogy.