Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

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