Places Discussed

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*Orleans. City on the Loire River in north-central France. Historically the English laid siege to Orleans in 1428 but were repelled by the heroic Joan of Arc, marking the turning point in the Hundred Years’ Wars. In presenting Orleans onstage, William Shakespeare sacrifices historical accuracy to Elizabethan prejudice by having Lord John Talbot retake the city from Joan (known in the play as Joan de Pucelle). At Orleans, English valor wins over French duplicity, reminding the audience of past English glory and giving them a stirring battle scene that made this play popular with Elizabethan-era audiences.

*Temple Garden

*Temple Garden. Garden adjoining the Inns of Court in London. Gardens traditionally symbolize peace and harmony, serving as models for orderly governments. However, in this invented scene Shakespeare subverts that tradition by making the Temple Garden the starting point for the Wars of the Roses. In the heat of a quarrel, Richard Plantagenet (later the duke of York) plucks a white rose from a bush; his enemy, the duke of Somerset, then plucks a red rose. Their partisans do likewise to make the roses serve as emblems of their animosity. These personal signs, the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster, become the fighting symbols that define the Wars of the Roses.


*Bordeaux (Bor-DOH). Capital city of Gascony in France. In contrast to the English triumph at Orleans, Bordeaux is the scene of England’s defeat and disgrace. Talbot, his forces surrounded by a French army, sends for reinforcements. However, the feuding English commanders, Somerset and York, ignore his pleas in order to spite each other. Talbot and his son die at Bordeaux, and with them dies English dominion in France. Shakespeare suggests that discord among the English leaders, “the vulture of sedition,” is more to blame for Talbot’s death and England’s defeat than the French are.

Modern Connections

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Although Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part One was written over four hundred years ago and deals with events almost two hundred years before that, it speaks in so many ways to modern audiences. It talks about war, marriage, politics, religion, and family in very contemporary language.

In the last century and more, people have witnessed the extraordinary brutality of armed conflict. The Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the war of Yugoslavian disintegration among others have become the stuff of shared cultural experience. So, when Salisbury is wounded at the siege of Orleance by a "piece of ord'nance" (I.iv.15), the reader understands, even expects, the result: one of his eyes and pan of his face is blown off. And so, when young Talbot dies in a "sea of blood" that "did drench / His overmounting spirit" (IV.vii.14, 15), readers can imagine what he would have looked like because they have seen the terrible effects of war first hand, or in photographs, on television, or on video.

With regard to marriage, Shakespeare raises the issue of its relation to love in terms that this age of palimony and prenuptial agreements can understand. When Suffolk tries to persuade the king to marry Margaret, daughter of the duke of Anjou, and prove faithless to his betrothed, the daughter of the earl of Arminack, he comments that money and legal agreements don't matter when it comes to love: ''Marriage is a matter of more worth / Than to be dealt in by attorneyship" (V.v.55-56), that arranged marriages spell disaster; marriages for love promise happiness:

For what is wedlock forced, but a hell,
An age of discord and continual strife?
Whereas the contrary bringeth bliss,
And is...

(This entire section contains 648 words.)

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a pattern of celestial peace.

Some readers would probably agree with Suffolk's assertion, but there are many religions in which arranged marriages are the norm.

Henry VI, Part One is pre-eminently a play about politics. In the absence of a strong ruler (the king is very young and irresolute in this play), the Yorkists and Lancastrians vie for power. In the famous Temple Garden scene (II.iv), on the one side line up Richard Plantagenet, Warwick, Vernon, and a lawyer; on the other, Somerset, Suffolk, and Basset. For a modern audience, such factionalism is not unusual. One need think only of what happened to Yugoslavia after the death of Tito or Russia after the decline of strong, centralized Communist control to recall the deadly infighting that occurs in a power vacuum. A far less extreme example of the result of factionalism is the gridlock that often paralyzes the United States government due to the differing agendas of Democrats and Republicans. Shakespeare's play ends on a note of foreboding, with Suffolk vowing to continue the political game of manipulation through his love for the king's future wife, Margaret, the duke of Anjou's daughter.

As for religion, Henry VI, Part One gives center stage to the conflict between two countries convinced that each has God on its side. At Henry V's funeral, the bishop of Winchester eulogizes:

He was a king blest of the King of kings.
Unto the French the dreadful Judgment Day
So dreadful will not be as was his sight.
The battles of the Lord of hosts he fought.

On the French side, Joan de Pucelle (Joan of Arc) is called the "holy maid" inspired by "Heaven and our Lady" (I.ii.51, 74). The French are convinced that she has been sent by God to rescue France from English domination; Shakespeare, however, in a scene that may surprise American audiences brought up to see Joan of Arc as a liberator, has her conversing with fiends (V.iii). For many English, Joan of Arc has typically been viewed as a despised figure, someone who took away land that many believe was rightfully theirs.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Bevington, David. "The Domineering Female in 1 Henry VI." Shakespeare Studies 2 (1966): 51-58. Bevington shows that the motif of the strong woman in 1 Henry VI intentionally parallels the theme of disagreement and division in the play.

Blanpied, John W. "Art and Baleful Sorcery: The Counterconsciousness of Henry VI, Part I." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 15, no. 2 (Spring 1975): 213- 227. Blanpied argues that the play is intentionally ironic and iconoclastic, a deliberate undermining of tradition. Boas, Frederick S. ''Joan of Arc in Shakespeare, Schiller and Shaw." Shakespeare Quarterly 2 (1951): 35-45. Boas argues that Shakespeare's portrait of Joan of Arc as inconsistent matches the pejorative view in Holinshed, his source.

Brockbank, J. M. "The Frame of Disorder: Henry VI." In Early Shakespeare, edited by John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris, 73-100. London: Edward Arnold, 1961. Brockbank traces the way in which Shakespeare alters his sources in order to stress the importance of pageantry in history.

Burckhardt, Sigurd. "I Am But Shadow of Myself": C e 28, no. 2 (June 1967): 139-158. Burckhardt shows how the language in the play consists of a self-assertion destructive to long-term goals and good order.

Candido, Joseph. "Getting Loose in the Henry VI Plays." Shakespeare Quarterly 35, no. 4 (Winter 1984): 392-406. Candido demonstrates that the Henry VI trilogy is unified by repeated scenes of capture and escape.

Greer, Clayton Alvis. "The Place of 1 Henry VI in the York- Lancaster Trilogy." PMLA 53 (1938): 687-710. Greer hypothesizes that Henry VI, Part One may be based on an earlier version of the play called Talbot or Harry the Sixth.

Kirschbaum, Leo. "The Authorship of 1 Henry VI." PMLA 67 (1952): 809-822. Kirschbaum provides evidence for Henry VI, Part One being Shakespeare's work and for its being written before Henry VI, Part Two and Three.

McNeir, Waldo F. "Comedy in Shakespeare's Yorkist Tetralogy." Pacific Coast Philology 9 (Apr. 1974): 48-55. Shows the presence of humor in Henry VI, Part One, Two, and Three, and Richard III. In Henry VI, Part One, the cowardice of Falstaff is intended to be funny.

Pratt, Samuel M. "Shakespeare and Humphrey Duke of Gloucester: A Study in Myth." Shakespeare Quarterly 16, no. 2 (Spring 1965): 201-216. Pratt shows how Shakespeare enhances the mythic quality of Humphrey as the "good duke."

Riggs, David. "The Hero in History: A Reading of Henry VI." In Shakespeare's Heroical Histories[:] Henry VI and Its Literary Tradition, 93-139. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971. Argues that Henry VI, Part One is meant to enshrine "exemplary truths" from fifteenth-century English history.

Sheriff, William E. ''Shakespeare's Use of the Native Comic Tradition in His Early English History Plays." Wisconsin Studies in Literature 2 (1965): 11-17. Sheriff traces the way in which Shakespeare uses humor in his history plays (including Henry VI, Part One).

Turner, Robert Y. "Characterization in Shakespeare's Early History Plays." ELH 31, no. 3 (Sept. 1964): 241-258. Turner demonstrates how Shakespeare's characters in the Henry VI trilogy are static rather than dynamic.

Wineke, Donald R. "The Relevance of Machiavelli to Shakespeare: A Discussion of 1 Henry VI." Clio 13, no. 1 (Fall 1983): 17-36. Wineke delineates the ways in which Shakespeare's political viewpoint is Machiavellian even if he never read the Italian's works.


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Berry, Edward I. “1 Henry VI: Chivalry and Ceremony.” In Patterns of Decay: Shakespeare’s Early Histories. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1975. Addresses some of the issues raised by earlier critics. Concludes that the play needs to be read in sequence, not alone.

Bevington, David. “The First Part of King Henry the Sixth.” In William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, edited by Alfred Harbage. Rev. ed. New York: Viking Press, 1969. Examines the functions of the characters. Considers multiple authorship theories and date of composition.

Blanpied, John W. Time and the Artist in Shakespeare’s English Histories. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983. Examines how the playwright transforms historical material into drama. Contains a chapter on Henry VI, Part I that sees the play as flawed and immature, but one from which Shakespeare learned about his craft.

Saccio, Peter. Shakespeare’s English Kings: History, Chronicle, and Drama. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. Contains a section on the play recounting Shakespeare’s sources. Includes genealogical charts and maps.

Tillyard, E. M. W. Shakespeare’s History Plays. London: Chatto & Windus, 1944. Argues against multiple authorship theories, claiming the structure of the play shows clear signs of Shakespeare’s style.


Critical Essays