Henry VI Part 1: Essay Q&A
1. “Shakespeare wrote his history plays, including Henry VI, Part One, to convey the official Tudor view of history.” Discuss.
There is little doubt that Shakespeare wrote his history plays in order to shape the English people’s view of their country’s history. In particular, the plays represent a view of English history that was complimentary to the Tudor queen, Elizabeth I, who occupied the throne for most of Shakespeare’s writing career.
The history plays sought to justify her place on the throne by representing her (and before her, her father Henry VIII) as reconciling the two royal houses of York and Lancaster, whose conflict was named the Wars of the Roses. Henry VI, Part One shows the origin of the Wars of the Roses in a dispute between the nobles. The subsequent history plays of Shakespeare show how, though the marriage of Elizabeth I’s grandfather Henry VII to the Yorkist heiress Elizabeth of York, Elizabeth I united the white and red roses of the Wars of the Roses in her emblem, the Tudor Rose.
Equally, it was important that Elizabeth I, a Protestant queen, was portrayed as having saved the nation from what the Protestant reformers saw as the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church. This is notably true of Henry VI, Part One, in which the duplicitous Joan and the ambitious Winchester are presented as Roman Catholic, whereas the honest characters are Protestant in their sensibility. In reality, for the periods portrayed in most of Shakespeare’s history plays, including the reign of Henry VI, the whole of England was Catholic. But this did not prevent Shakespeare from consistently portraying Catholicism as a decadent and destructive force, while making his wise characters embody a proto-Protestant stance.
During Elizabeth I’s reign, England had troubled relationships with France and Spain. In 1588, Spain launched a hostile fleet (the Armada) against England, which was defeated by the English navy. In the light of such threats from abroad, Elizabeth I was keen to encourage in her subjects a strong sense of national identity. Shakespeare’s history plays have an intensely patriotic thread, praising England and those Englishmen who fight loyally for their country. For this reason, Shakespeare’s Henry V was used by the British government in World War II as propaganda to strengthen national morale.
In all these aims, Shakespeare was successful. For most English people over the centuries since he wrote them, his plays were the official history of the nation. As F. P. Wilson writes of Shakespeare and his contemporaries in Marlowe and the Early Shakespeare (Oxford, 1953, p. 109), “For whatever reason, after the victory of the Armada, the dramatists took the risk, and were licensed to take the risk, of writing plays on English history, and for some ten years the plays were acted which have provided many an Englishman with his only knowledge of medieval history.”
2. How does Shakespeare portray and comment on the changing role of the aristocracy in Henry VI, Part One?
England’s nobles were descended from the warriors that accompanied and fought for William the Conqueror in his conquest of England in 1066. England’s monarchy passed from the Anglo-Saxon line (ending in King Harold, who was killed by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066) to the Norman line embodied in William and his descendants. William rewarded the men who helped him conquer England by giving them vast tracts of land with manor houses attached. Originally, the ancestors of the various dukes of the play would have owned the lands that their names (titles) denoted. For example, the Duke of Bedford would have owned the land in the area of Bedford, a town in the county of Bedfordshire. A title descended down the generations, with the eldest son inheriting lands and title.
Many nobles were related to the monarch and to each other. Noble families saw marriage as a way of increasing the family’s landholdings, wealth, and influence. Marriages between cousins or other relatives were a calculated way of keeping wealth within the family.
Even after the nobles became landowners, they maintained a military role. In time of war, they were expected to raise an army for the monarch from among the tenants who lived on and farmed their land. This tradition continued through Shakespeare’s time into the seventeenth century, when the tombs of nobles still showed them dressed in armor and with weapons. Within the aristocratic tradition of bloodlines and inherited wealth, the qualities that were seen as important were the military values of loyalty to the monarch, bravery, and honor.
From the time of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I’s father, a parallel power structure to the aristocracy began to grow as a result of Henry’s own inclinations and of the changing nature of English society. The Black Death, a plague that wiped out vast numbers of the population in the fifteenth century, had led to a scarcity of manpower. This gave freedom to the former tenant farmers of manors to leave the land of their feudal lords and travel around in search of the best paid positions. These former tenant farmers began to acquire wealth in their own right, forming a new middle class. The middle class also burgeoned as a result of the growth in trade. This was particularly true of the wool trade, which brought huge wealth to the new class of entrepreneurs.
Henry VIII employed such up-and-coming men, known as “new men”, to assist him in governing the nation, thus shifting some of the power from the old aristocracy to the new meritocracy. An example was Thomas Cromwell, who rose on merit from humble birth to become Henry VIII’s most trusted advisor. In the process, Cromwell earned the disapproval of many high-born courtiers who felt that their natural place at the right hand of the monarch had been usurped by an upstart.
The rise of the middle class was further encouraged by the expansion of education through the founding of grammar schools by monarchs and nobles. These schools enabled education, which had previously been largely confined to the nobility and clergy, to be made available to a broader swathe of society.
The rise to power of the new middle class continued in Elizabeth’s reign. Her closest advisor, William Cecil, was a man of modest background. Elizabeth elevated him to the nobility by creating him Lord Burghley. Burghley accumulated great wealth and exemplified the tendency of the newly rich to make alliances with the old nobility through the marriage of family members. Burghley’s daughter Anne married the 17th Earl of Oxford, a scion of one of the oldest aristocratic families in England.
In spite of the continued rise of the meritocracy, the English aristocracy maintained a hold on power, mainly due to its huge landholdings, until the two world wars of the twentieth century. The social, political, and economic upheaval resulting from the wars broke up this highly stratified social order.
Shakespeare’s plays are conservative in viewpoint with regard to the role of the aristocracy. The old aristocratic ideals of selfless service, courage in battle, and loyalty to monarch and nation are upheld and celebrated in Henry VI, Part One in characters such as Talbot and his son, Salisbury, and (in the matter of Talbot’s reinforcements) Richard, Duke of York. The decline of this aristocratic ideal is mourned as the noble characters are betrayed and destroyed by the actions of the ‘new men’ and women, the politicians and upstarts such as Somerset, Winchester, and Joan. Motivated by personal ambition and greed, these characters have no use for the old chivalric codes of behavior.
3. Is the title of the play an apt one? Is Henry the hero of the play? If not, who is, and why?
Although the play is titled, Henry VI, Part One, Henry himself is a minor character who does not appear until Act 3, scene 1. This, however, reinforces the points about Henry’s reign that Shakespeare wished to make in this play. Henry is a minor who is too young to rule in his own right, so the nation is ruled by the Lord Protector, Gloucester, until he is crowned later in the play (in Act 4, scene 1). Gloucester has a feud in progress with Winchester, setting the pattern for the major dispute among the nobles, the Wars of the Roses. The first two acts of the play are occupied by these feuds, which take place against the background of an absent king, reinforcing the sense that there is no one who is properly in charge of the nation.
Even when Henry does appear, he does not speak until 65 lines into the scene, which is dominated by the bickering nobles. His first words are to beg his uncles to make peace, a piece of intense dramatic irony (dramatic irony is a literary device in which the audience knows something that the characters on stage do not, enabling them to interpret a character’s words or actions in a way that this character may not intend). This is because the audience has already seen the nobles in the Temple Garden scene taking sides in the dispute that, as every Elizabethan spectator would have known, led to the Wars of the Roses. Henry’s innocent words, though well-meaning, are laughable in their ineffectualness.
Henry shows little initiative, repeatedly going along with the suggestions of the nobles, even in the matter of his marriage. His love for peace earns him sympathy yet is impractical and otherworldly, given the obvious disputes that divide the realm. He does not deal with the disputes in a decisive manner but only pleads for them to stop.
The foil (contrasting or opposite character) to Henry is Talbot. It is he who comes closest to being the play’s hero. Decisive, courageous in battle, canny, and an excellent leader of men, Talbot is held up as a great military hero of the old chivalric order. Talbot, however, is killed alongside his son. Their deaths, caused by the petty politicking of Somerset, become symbolic of the death of the old chivalric ideal at the hands of the new and sullied ranks of politicians.
4. Discuss the portrayal of women in the play.
There are only three women in the play: the Countess of Auvergne, Margaret, and Joan. None are trustworthy or admirable figures: all are marked with the taint of betrayal and falsehood, leading to a decidedly misogynist streak in the play. In addition, they are all French, and this is an anti-French play, so there are no women on the side of the ‘heroes,’ the English.
The Countess of Auvergne is Shakespeare’s invention, having no counterpart in the historical sources. She serves as a foil to Talbot, the honest military hero. Deceptive, treacherous, and hungry for personal fame, she tries to lure Talbot into a trap by inviting him to her castle on the pretext of wanting to meet the man whose reputation she admires. He accepts her invitation for honest and generous reasons, out of respect for the power of women’s kindness, but she betrays him by trying to take him prisoner. In doing so, she violates the laws of hospitality much as Lady Macbeth was to do in Shakespeare’s later play, Macbeth, when she persuades her husband to kill King Duncan and seize the throne.
Her deception, however, backfires and serves only to foreground Talbot’s canniness, as he foresees a possible trap and brings his army with him. Her plot frustrated, she ends up admiring Talbot all the more, agreeing to feed his army “With all my heart,” adding that she counts herself “honoured / To feast so great a warrior in my house.” Shakespeare repeatedly makes the French admire their enemies, the English, in this play, a propaganda technique that reinforces the idea of the heroic English.
Margaret, in this play, is a slightly drawn figure and a shadow of her historical counterpart and of the formidable character she was to become in future plays (Henry VI, Parts Two and Three, and Richard III). Remarkable here only for her beauty, she is a pawn in Suffolk’s plans to gain personal power for himself. Suffolk ostensibly woos her for the king, but falls in love with her. The fact that she apparently returns Suffolk’s kiss with an insistence that it is for him, not for the king, is ominous and suggestive of double-dealing and deception on her part.
Joan if the most problematic character in the play, and presents a huge challenge to any actress as the author’s portrayal of her is wildly inconsistent, beyond the bounds of what may be considered the usual contradictions in human nature. While she initially claims to be a virgin on a mission from God and the Virgin Mary, she is later revealed as trafficking in witchcraft and devil-worship.
This is quite a stretch for any actress, not to mention for the reader or audience. It rings false because Joan has a strong record in pragmatic thinking and psychological insight (such as in Act 4, scene 7 and Act 5, scene 2) and time and again proves herself an excellent military leader. These qualities make her a modern, realistic, and admirable figure, accounting for the great veneration in which the historical Joan is held in France.
The witchery and devilry of Shakespeare’s Joan appear to be bolted-on aspects to her character in an attempt on the author’s part to justify the burning by the English of a French national heroine and saint. Just in case this were insufficient persuasion, Joan in her final scene claims to be pregnant, thus giving the lie to her claims of virgin purity. She keeps changing her mind as to the identity of the father, making her seem untrustworthy even in this most intimate matter. Also, she repudiates her humbly-born shepherd father, thus revealing herself to be a heartless snob. The crude propaganda value of the latter act is maximized in the shepherd’s insistence that the English should burn her rather, as hanging is too good for her. This attempt to justify an unjustifiable act in English history may well backfire for modern audiences, making them lose sympathy with the author rather than with Joan.
5. Research the history of the play, Henry VI, Part One. What was its relevance to Elizabethan audiences, and is it still relevant today?
The first mention of a play that is widely considered to have been Henry VI, Part One, is from 1592. The diary of theatre impresario Philip Henslowe records a performance of a play called “Harey the Vj” (i.e. Harry VI) on March 3 by the Lord Strange’s Men at the Rose Theatre, London. Henslowe notes that the play is “ne” (probably meaning ‘new’).
The play’s authorship is debated, due to the inferior quality of much of the verse and the inconsistent and crude portrayal of Joan of Arc. Opinions range from Shakespeare’s having little or no role in writing the play, through his being responsible only for certain passages or scenes (particularly the Temple Garden and Mortimer scenes), to his having written the whole play. Possible collaborators that have been put forward by critics include Thomas Nashe, Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, and George Peele. It is also possible that the play is an early work by Shakespeare (accounting for its inferior aspects), which he revised later.
As is revealed from the Elizabethan theatre impresario Philip Henslowe’s diary, the play was frequently performed in Shakespeare’s own time. Queen Elizabeth I took a keen interest in the theater and was reportedly concerned about the effect of certain plays’ messages on her subjects, as when Richard II, a play that deals with the deposition of a king, was performed shortly before of the Earl of Essex’s rebellion against Elizabeth in 1601, seemingly at the instigation of Essex’s supporters.
Thus Henry VI, Part One was almost certainly promoted for propaganda reasons, to heighten national solidarity and patriotism at a time when England had strained relations with France and had been directly threatened by the Spanish Armada in 1588.
Central to this propaganda drive was the character of Talbot, the ultimate English military hero. What seems to be a historical reference to Henry VI, Part One is made by the author Thomas Nashe's satire, Piers Penniless his Supplication to the Devil (entered into the Stationers' Register on August 8, 1592). Singling out the character of Talbot for particular emphasis, Nashe writes: “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, who in the tragedian that represents his person imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.”
After Shakespeare’s death, the play fell out of favor and seems to have been rarely acted until 1864, when it was performed at the Surrey Theatre in London. In 1899 and 1906 it was performed at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. The play enjoyed a triumphant revival in Peter Hall's 1963 Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production of a conflated version of all three parts of Henry VI under the title The Wars of the Roses, at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Hall felt that the civil dissent and societal breakdown depicted in the play reflected contemporary political events such as the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. Subsequent productions have mostly followed Hall’s approach of massively cutting the text of the three parts of the tetralogy and performing the result as one play.
In spite of its problematical aspects, the play retains its value as a commentary on the dangers of civil dissent and disunity. The power structure may have shifted, from monarchs and nobles to politicians and multinational corporations. But still highly relevant are the play’s concern with the dichotomy of personal greed versus public good, a divisive political system, an under-resourced military, the imperialistic ambitions of nations, and the question of morality and ‘sleaze’ in the political leadership.
Henry VI Part 1 Study GuideChoose to Continue
- Henry VI Part 1
- Act 1, Scene 1
- Act 1, Scene 2
- Act 1, Scene 3
- Act 1, Scene 4-7
- Act 2, Scene 1
- Act 2, Scene 2
- Act 2, Scene 3
- Act 2, Scene 4
- Act 2, Scene 5
- Act 3, Scene 1
- Act 3, Scene 2
- Act 3, Scene 3
- Act 3, Scene 4
- Act 4, Scene 1
- Act 4, Scene 2
- Act 4, Scene 5
- Act 4, Scene 6
- Act 4, Scene 7
- Act 5, Scene 2
- Act 5, Scene 3
- Act 5, Scene 5
- Act 5, Scene 6
- Character Profiles
- Metaphor Analysis
- Theme Analysis
- Top Ten Quotes
- William Shakespeare
- Essay Q&A