King Henry VI Part One | William Shakespeare | The Commentary

by Glenn on August 5, 2018


There’s a lot going on here in this play beyond the basic action. It seems to me that one way of looking at Shakespeare’s King Henry VI, Part One is as a collection of juxtapositions:

—England vs. France (in particular, a factious England and a more singular (at least in presentation) France)
—English soldier (powerful) vs. French soldier (weak)
—English Court vs. French Battlefield
—Political strategy vs. strategy in War
—Young, solitary king vs. older, squabbling, collection of nobles
—Powerful, “in charge” Henry V vs. Puppet, “must be managed” Henry VI
—England on the ascent (Henry V) vs. England on the decline (Henry VI)
—authority of the king is largely symbolic rule vs. the actual power of those in charge
—Margaret, daughter of King of Naples vs. the daughter of the Earl of Armagnac (relative of the Dauphin)
—Joan (French girl killed for trying to defeat England) vs. Margaret, French girl who is brought in  conspiratorially to help rule England
—Joan: girl, young, unschooled, country born, powerful because possessed vs. Talbot: man, older, noble, high-born, powerful because practiced
—A French army successful because of a witch/woman (supernatural help) vs. an English army full of Talbots
—Yorkists (white rose) vs. Lancasters (red rose)
—witchcraft vs. astrology as an explanation of why events unfold as they do
—witchcraft vs. reason
—legitimate birth vs. out of wedlock
—women vs. men
—the choices and rivalries of humans vs. God’s will
—Winchester/Tawny/Church vs. Gloucester/Blue/State
—The gains of Henry V vs the struggle of Henry VI to keep from losing territory
—Henry VI aware of wanting to avoid civil dissension vs. Henry VI choosing (both) sides by restoring lands and titles and wearing a red rose
—3 French women vs. no English women

The not quite consensus is that this isn’t one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays (if he even wrote it in totality. Even those who like the play avoid superlatives. It’s a young Shakespeare who is involved. But what you can see is that it has significant points of tension.


This is really a play about Talbot and Joan more than Henry VI. Jean E. Howard in the notes for The Norton Shakespeare, Third Edition, where I read the play, quotes Thomas Nashe, “Shakespeare’s contemporary, and himself a playwright”:

“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 ve 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?”

Howard says the theatre was criticized by Elizabethan writers “as a place of idleness where lies and lewd stories were circulated.” But in plays like this one, Nashe could “argue for the value of the stage, partly because of its role in preserving the memory of England’s glorious heroes.”

Things I gleaned from Howard:

1. History plays were very much in vogue in the time of Shakespeare. One of the virtues of history on stage is that

“The theatre, unlike obscure and musty texts, made a version of English history accessible even to those who could not read. For a penny, a common person could go to the theater, stand in the pit, and thrill to the exploits of Talbot and the treachery of the French.”

2. King Henry VI, Part One was probably written by a committee. It is thought that perhaps Nashe (referenced above) wrote Act I while Shakespeare created the Temple Garden scene (2.4) where roses were plucked to determined sides “and the moving sequence leading to Talbot’s death (4.2–4.5).”

3. There may have been something politically advantageous in telling the story the way Shakespeare and company did. As they tell the story of Essex heading to fight in Rouen, France, a contemporary Earl of Essex was “at the very moment . . . once again before the city’s walls. Many people in England might thus have seen in Talbot an image of their contemporary champion, the dashing Earl of Essex.”

4. When we call this a history play, it really needs to be thought of as a “history” play. Shakespeare is not writing as a historicist. He has taken the works of historians (especially the 1587 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles and a history of the Wars of the Roses by Hall), maximizing drama and relaxing accuracy.

For example, while the opening of King Henry VI, Part One suggests a confluence of events and a crisis, that at the funeral of Henry V messengers were announcing the loss of French towns, in reality it was years before those towns fell.

King Henry VI was nine months old when Henry V died (1422), but the play shows Henry VI, while in the care of a Lord Protector, has some agency and at the end of the play is getting ready to marry.

Some events are just made up, for example Talbot taking the city of Rouen and the Garden Scene where white and red roses are plucked to determine alliances.

Some things are just wrong:

“In this play, for example, the Edmund Mortimer who had a claim to the throne is conflated with his cousin John Mortimer, who was imprisoned in the Tower for many years for supporting his kinsman’s royal ambitions. Sir John Falstaff is treated as a cowardly knight, when in actuality he was a distinguished officer of Henry’s forces in the French wars.”


I’m amazed how Isaac Asimov (Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare) brings a magnifying glass to his reading of these plays. He is very much focused on the trees rather than the forest and displays a deep understanding of the actual history that is compressed, distorted, and re-sequenced in the play. He refers to “the long, turbulent, and tragic reign of Henry VI.” And he enjoys setting the record straight. In the play, Henry says,

“When I was young (as yet I am not old)
I do remember how my father said
A stouter champion [Talbot] never handled sword.” (III.4, 17–19)

Asimov explains,

“The King was certainly ‘not old.’ At his coronation in Paris he was just past his ninth birthday. And to remember something his father said when he ‘was young’ would make him a prodigy indeed, for he was not quite nine months old when his father died.”

Asimov provides a couple of excellent charts of the Houses of York and Lancaster that are really helpful to getting a sense of who is who. When Bedford and Gloucester and Winchester and Exeter are arguing, it’s interesting to note that the first two are uncles and the latter, great uncles of Henry VI. Bedford and Exeter are interested in soldiering. Winchester and Gloucester are focused on politics.

Asimov makes a connection to a film from a generation ago that would never have occurred to me (it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the film):

“It is Talbot who is the true hero of Henry VI, Part One. Indeed, one might almost say that the play bears a resemblance in atmosphere and quality to the motion picture The Green Berets and Talbot is John Wayne.”

Asimov challenges Shakespeare’s presentation of Talbot. The battle referenced by the Third Messenger in the opening scene gives Talbot and the English army superhuman powers—as Asimov explains it, “outnumbered four to one, held out for three hours with Talbot wreaking personal destruction beyond imagination.” But Asimov corrects,

“Actually, Talbot might have fought like a hero, but he had also fought like a fool. The version given here in the play has scarcely anything in common with the facts. Talbot was not ambushed and might easily have avoided a battle and escaped when a French force (consisting of only eight thousand men and not twenty-three thousand) approached him at Patay in June 1429 (and not August 10), some fifteen miles northwest of Orléans.

“The trouble was that Talbot was humiliated at having had to retreat from Orléans, and with the odds four to three against him (not four to one) he decided to fight. Of course, such a keen sense of ‘honor’ is often praised by those who are safe at home, but the Battle of Patay caused the unnecessary deaths of two thousand Englishmen, and that is a high price to pay for Talbot’s wanting to pay back his humiliation.”

Asimov also sets the record straight on Falstaff (he’s not a coward) and Joan la Pucelle (Joan the Maid). Joan was born Jeanne Darc, “but this came to be spelled Jeanne D’Arc as though she were of noble birth and as though she were Joan of Arc, with Arc being the place of her birth. This is wrong, but it is too late to change it.”

Asimov gives excellent genealogical details and adds a layer to the Temple Garden scene that hadn’t occurred to me. He writes, “It is not hard to see that nobody present wants to choose sides.” The problem is that if you pick a white rose, you are  committing an act of treason. If you pick a red rose, you are with the king, but if the Yorkists take back the throne, then you’re now treasonous.


Harold Bloom (Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human) doesn’t have much to say about this play and what he says isn’t all that flattering:

“Shakespeare’s play is bad enough that perhaps we should not lament the loss of the first Hamlet, which I suspect would have been at least as crude.”


In contrast, Marjorie Garber (Shakespeare: After All) writes,

I Henry VI is a lively, smart, sophisticated, and well-designed play, full of strong characters and fast-paced action. It plays exceedingly well onstage, and it does not deserve the literary condescension that has sometimes come its way.”

Garber adds some nuance to the fact that Shakespeare (and his collaborators) alter history. She points out that there are reasons, which are “either political or aesthetic (or both).” There are 31 years between the funeral of Henry V, which opens the play, and the death of the two Talbots in battle. As he anticipates his death, Talbot even refers to the “scarce cold” body of Henry V. Garber explains, “The fictive compression of time emphasizes the radical rather than gradual reversal of fortune for England from the power of the previous king.”

While Talbot doesn’t win, neither does Joan, as she is depicted being sent to the stake to be burned as a witch.

Garber mentions the fact that Joan dresses like a man to fight, which “sets up an interesting interplay between the historical and the metatheatrical,” since the behavior for which the historical Joan was burned at the stake (wearing the clothes of the ‘opposite sex’) was standard theatrical practice for boy actors playing women on the English stage.” Garber notes this comes from Biblical law. Deuteronomy 22:5:

“A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this.” [NIV]

This brings up an issue (at least one). While cross-dressing was not allowed in real life, the rule that said only men could appear on stage meant that cross-dressing was normative on stage. And so with the character of Joan here we have a man (probably a boy) pretending to be a woman dressed like a man. It’s hard to sort out. Garber adds some detail that I wasn’t aware of. The trouble with Joan, the historical character, is that she is a woman wanting to take on “the rights and privileges of a man.”

In the death scene of Talbot, where young Talbot is put in the arms of his father, Garber finds rich symbolism. (Coincidentally, I did an image search and found a photo of this scene from the one stage production I’ve seen of this play, from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2004.)

Garber’s point is that this scene in Shakespeare’s time “would present an unmistakable and powerful spectacle. … [I]t remakes a Catholic icon into a patriotic English one,” noting that England of Talbot’s time was Catholic, before Henry VIII and the Church of England.


I listened to a “fully dramatized,” Arkangel production of Henry VI, Part One. It’s remarkable how much better you understand the words when they are uttered by people who seem to know what they are saying. Good actors have helped me better understand the English of Shakespeare with their actions, but it turns out you can understand a lot by listening. Inflection, tone, diction, emphasis all contribute to understanding.

A valiant Globe Theatre production of Henry VI, Part One, performed outside on a historically relevant battlefield in the pouring rain, is worth watching:

This is a good introduction to the play. This is not. I listened to a couple of really fine podcasts. The first one is by No Holds Bard, it provides a great introduction to the play. The other is by Rex Factor, which does a great job of making the history behind the play both accessible and interesting.

What should one think about the history of Henry VI, Part One as presented by the playwrights (whoever they were that were cooperating with or had been co-opted by Shakespeare)? Should we be critical of the fact that there are errors, including the fabrication of people and events and improper and misleading timelines? The simple, un-nuanced answer is Yes. A history is the remembrance of the past. If you’re going to describe history, you should describe it accurately. Tell the truth.

There are some problems with this simple answer, beginning with the fact that it’s not that easy. There are constraints in the medium of the stage that affect the telling of the story. With a play (or a film for that matter), you’ve got a couple of hours and you can’t convey a lot of history in those two hours, particularly if you say that those two hours have to be in actual time, as say the television show 24 tried to do. You can’t put everything on screen or stage. Borrowing an example from literature, even if you decide to turn The Lord of the Rings into a three-part film, things are going to be left out. Tom Bombadil, for one, and if not Tom, then probably something else. And so we say, “Never judge a book by its movie.” And we should say a similar thing about a history. Maybe the formulation is something like: Don’t confuse a historical production with actual history. At the very least, time is going to be something you don’t want to think about too clearly. In fact, perhaps the best historical plays have a timeless (or out of time) quality to them.

We shouldn’t watch a play to learn history. At best, we should say we’re learning some or simply reflecting on or gaining some insights about history. (Although there’s an argument to be made that says people are sometimes prone to think that what they see in the movies is history. I saw it. But Mel Gibson is not William Wallace. What we saw on screen in Braveheart is not what actually happened. There are always compromises. Years ago, there was a novel of the Civil War that was turned into a film. But Cold Mountain was filmed largely in Romania. We can’t always trust what we are seeing to be telling the truth about even the setting.)

I wonder if history is best learned from books or lectures, where there’s time to tell a longer story.  We have to make some sort of agreement that when we watch anything that purports to present history, if we want to know more, which is to say if we really want to know the history, we’re going to have to read something. There’s no getting around that. When the movie begins with the printed statement, “Based on a true story” or “Based on actual events,” it’s a reminder that we’re not watching the actual events. There will be so much missing necessarily due to the constraints. Understanding those actual events will require some study, in the same way that if you really want to understand a novel, you’ll need to read it.

When it comes to history on the stage, things are going to be left out. To be fair, even if we are talking about a written history, like a biography or a description of an era, the author isn’t telling you everything that happened for the simple reason that there’s no time to read everything that happened in the past while we continue to live in the present. A lot happened in World War 2. How do you convey it all? Do you write a book that takes six or so years to read? Where would you find the time? The historian is selective. The historian is looking for what is meaningful as much as what should be remembered. And the playwright has to be even more selective.

As audience members, we’re demanding, too. We might not actually want to watch two hours of history unless that history is somehow entertaining. And so a theatrical production doesn’t need to be perfect, because the aims of theatre are not the same as those of historical study. The latter we might say is about getting the story straight. The theatre is about, not to be too cute, setting a stage. It’s about grabbing attention.

It’s hard for me to get too worked up about discrepancies between actual and dramatic history. One of the great problems in this play is that one of the scenes that all the commentators say was by Shakespeare, the picking of roses in the garden, is a complete fabrication. But it’s an important moment in the action. So do you say, “That’s not true!” Or do you, instead, see the dramatic truth in the fact that there were allegiances to a certain house (York or Lancaster) and the picking of the roses visualizes the whole thing for the playgoer. So that while Shakespeare wasn’t telling the historical truth, he was telling an emotional truth about the era. There were two factions that were beginning to go to war with one another. And however individuals may have indicated which side they were on, there was no question that people chose sides.

It helps to know that there is an accurate history that we can compare to, though even “accurate” histories have problems. I remember watching an episode of Booknotes years ago that featured the historian Paul Johnson talking about his book, A History of the American People. The interviewer, Brian Lamb, pointed out a number of minor little flaws. As I recall, Johnson answered that he would correct things in future versions, but that mistakes in detail were tough to avoid, at least entirely. Excellence is not necessarily perfection.

Shakespeare was writing in a difficult political climate. He had to be careful about how he presented history. (No point in being controversial, because you might be jailed or dead, at which point you’re no longer in the business of writing histories.) Telling history in a dramatic way in Shakespeare’s time meant you had some boundaries to stay within:
—England good. France bad. Italy exotic and warm and dreamy.
—Don’t mess with the monarch or the government. Make the sovereign look good.
—Don’t incite riots.

Within these boundaries, then, the primary job is to be compelling. One of the thing the playwright may have been doing is portraying a moment in England’s history when things were chaotic and in decline in contrast to the present age of Gloriana. Shakespeare does need to exercise caution as he tells British history. I’ve heard Elizabethan England described as a kind of police state (with disloyalty ruthlessly dealt with), so he needs to be careful what he says about the Crown, particularly in the case of this play as it relates to the ancestors of the reigning English monarch.