A chronicle play in five
acts, first performed in 1589-92 and published in the First Folio of 1623.
Henry VI, Part 1 is the first in a sequence of four history plays (the
others being Henry VI, Part 2, Henry VI, Part 3, and Richard III) known
collectively as the "first tetralogy," treating the Wars of
the Roses between the houses of Lancaster and York. Shakespeare's primary
sources for the historical events in the play were the chronicles of Edward
Hall and Raphael Holinshed.
Henry V's funeral is attended by many of
his noblemen, who speak sadly of the death of such a great king. Several
messengers arrive, announcing trouble in France. Several towns, part of
the English territory once won by Henry V, have been lost, the Dauphin
Charles has been crowned king, and is nurturing a rebellion across the
Channel. In addition, there are growing rifts among the nobles in England,
notably between factions of York and Lancaster (which will fester and
over time become the War of the Roses). Also the English hero, Talbot
has been taken prisoner, hearing the news, the noblemen rise to action,
each taking on a different task to help reorganize the kingdom and prepare
the newly crowned king Henry VI--for his emergency duties in France.
Talbot's forces lay siege to Orléans,
while Charles and his lords try to fight their way out. Yet the English,
although exhausted and starving, still beat them. The Bastard of Orléans
brings Joan to meet Charles. She says she has seen visions and can lead
the troops. Charles challenges her to single combat and she beats him.
She assures the French that she will break the siege that very day.
In London, the Protector of the kingdom,
Gloucester, who will rule until the young king is old enough to take over,
comes to blows with the leader of the church, Winchester, at the Tower
of London. Winchester bars Gloucester from entering the Tower and accuses
him of plotting to take over the kingdom. Their serving men join in the
fight, but soon the Mayor arrives to split them up.
In France, Talbot's is exchanged for a captured
French lord. The French launch an attack on the English forces, killing
important leaders. Talbot and Joan fight, and she gains the upper hand,
but she says it is not his time to die, and she leaves him. Joan succeeds
in lifting the siege, and the French nobles celebrate her successes. Yet
Talbot engineers a sneak attack on Orléans and retakes the city,
so that he can bury his dead comrades within the city.
The Countess of Auvergne sends for Talbot.
She says she wants to see this renowned man in person. Talbot goes to
her castle, where she now declares he has fallen into her trap. But Talbot
laughs, saying he is not as small as he looks. Rather, he is just one
part of a great army that will never be trapped. His soldiers arrive instantly.
Back in London, many lords gather in the
Temple Garden outside Parliament to dispute a point of law. Richard Plantagenet
and Somerset form the heads of opposing camps. The two men ask others
to show their support for their respective positions: those supporting
Richard pick a white rose, and those supporting Somerset pick a red one.
Somerset insults Plantagenet's father and
they each scorn each other. Warwick predicts that the argument, though
begun over something so small, will end in the deaths of thousands.
Richard Plantagenet goes to the Tower of
London to seek the counsel of his uncle, Edmund Mortimer. Mortimer says
Plantagenet's father was once in line to the throne and had raised an
army to help him claim his right to power, but he was captured and executed,
while the rest of the Mortimer line, including this Mortimer, was suppressed.
Mortimer dies, leaving Plantagenet even more anxious to regain his birthright.
Winchester and Gloucester continue a feud of their own, in the meantime.
All of Parliament soon learns of Gloucester
and Winchester's dispute when their serving men crash into the room pelting
each other with stones. King Henry urges them not to fight, for civil
dissention will weaken the nation. The two men promise to stop fighting
for the moment. Warwick presents Plantagenet's request to have his father's
title passed on to him. The king grants it, also giving him his uncle's
former title, and, thus, renaming him the Duke of York. Gloucester urges
the king to go to France to deal with the unrest there, and Henry agrees.
Exeter comments on the growing factionalism resulting from the noblemen's
quarrels--that of Gloucester and Winchester and that of Plantagenet (now
York) and Somerset--and refers to a prophecy stating that Henry VI would
lose all the territories that his father had won for Britain.
Back in France, Talbot's forces stand outside
Rouen, prepared to attack. The French and English forces insult each other
repeatedly. Talbot asks the French to meet him in the field and fight
a fair fight rather than using their walled city to their advantage, but
they refuse. The English forces manage to beat the French forces anyway.
Talbot and Burgundy prepare for Henry VI's coronation in Paris.
Joan tells Charles not to worry about the
loss, because she has a new plan to weaken Talbot. Burgundy, a French
leader fighting with Talbot, constitutes the only threat to her plan,
Joan asks Burgundy for a parley on the road to Paris, which the duke accepts;
this leads to Joan convincing the Duke of Burgundy to switch over to the
Henry arrives in Paris with his nobles. Talbot
goes to meet him, where he receives a message from Burgundy about his
change of loyalty. Talbot goes with his forces to try to talk to him.
Meanwhile two underlings of York and Somerset ask the king for the right
to have an armed fight. This is the first the King learns of the struggle
between the followers of the white rose and the red rose. The king urges
Somerset and York to put aside their differences while they are in France,
for their dissention will make Britain appear weak to its enemy. The king
says it shouldn't matter what rose he wears, since he loves both his lords--yet
even as he says this he picks Somerset's red rose. York is upset but he
keeps it to himself. Henry assigns the two men to new tasks in France,
making York the leader of the English troops and putting Somerset in charge
of the cavalry.
Talbot, upon hearing of Burgundy's defection,
marches his army against him, and Henry appoints Richard and the Duke
of Somerset to reinforce Talbot in the battle. Talbot prepares to attack
Bordeaux, but the city is well defended and Charles' forces approach from
behind, trapping Talbot. A messenger from Talbot asks York to send the
cavalry reinforcements to save Talbot, however the bickering of Somerset
and Richard, however, leads to delays in sending their troops. Talbot
fights valiantly, but is slain in the combat when the additional soldiers
Convinced Somerset has delayed the delivery
of the cavalry out of dislike for him, York bemoans the imminent death
of Talbot and the loss of the lands hard won by Henry V. The same messenger
goes to Somerset, who says York is to blame for sending Talbot into battle
without sufficient troops and that York probably did so knowingly, wanting
to take over Talbot's post. The messenger says Somerset should have helped
Talbot, and his death will be both noblemen's shame.
Talbot's son John arrives on the battlefield,
having come to learn about soldiering from his father. But Talbot tells
him he has arrived at a terrible moment and urges him to flee rather than
die in his first battle. John refuses, saying he will disgrace the honour
of the Talbot name if he flees. The battle begins, and John is wounded;
yet still he will not flee. Finally, John is killed and Talbot dies of
grief. The English army is defeated.
Back in London, Gloucester reads letters
from the pope urging the English to make peace with the French. Charles
agrees to make an offer. Meanwhile in France, Charles' forces are under
attack by the united front of Somerset and York. Joan calls to her patron-demons
to advise her about the future, but they refuse to speak to her. York
captures Joan in battle. In the course of the battles, Suffolk has captured
Margaret, a French girl, daughter to one of Charles' nobles, René.
Impressed with her beauty, he wants to woo her, but he is already married.
So he decides to woo her for Henry and asks René if he will consent
to her marriage to the English king.
Richard and Somerset set aside their differences
long enough to capture Joan of Arc. York and Warwick hold Joan in trial.
They ask if it is true that her father was a shepherd, but she refuses
to acknowledge this. She tries to convince them that they should not kill
her, for she is a virgin and, thus, able in her purity to communicate
with powers on high; they will incur a heavenly wrath if they execute
her. York and Warwick nonetheless prepare to have her burnt at the stake.
She now suddenly claims that she is pregnant and they wouldn't dare kill
a pregnant woman, but York tells her that no matter what she says, she
will die. She curses the English and is led away.
Meanwhile, Winchester tries to engineer peace
between Charles and the English. At first, Charles resists, but his nobles
advise him to accept the peace for the moment in order to stop the massacre
of his citizens; they can always break the treaty later. In the meantime,
Gloucester is trying to set up a match between Henry and the daughter
of a French lord in order to force a peace between France and England.
However, the Earl of Suffolk introduces Margaret
of Anjou to Henry in an attempt to get him to marry her. However, Suffolk
has some designs of his own on Margaret, hoping to use her to control
Henry. This leads to the action of Henry VI, Part II.
Suffolk arrives in London and tells the king
of Margaret's charms. Henry decides that he will marry her, but Gloucester
reminds him he is already engaged to the daughter of a relative of Charles,
a match that would soothe international politics. Margaret's father Rene
is only a minor earl with no money and, thus, a union with her would offer
no real advantages. Yet Henry insists on marrying her and tells Gloucester
he must simply forgive his choice. Suffolk has succeeded; now Margaret
will rule the king and he will rule Margaret.
Henry VI, Part 1 covers the early part of
King Henry's reign and ends with events immediately preceding the opening
of Part 2. It contains the non-historical scene in which Richard Plantagenet,
later duke of York, chooses a white rose and John Beaufort, earl (later
duke) of Somerset, a red rose as emblems of their respective houses of
York and Lancaster. It is uncertain whether Part 1 was Shakespeare's first
effort at a historical play, written before the other two parts, or a
supplement that was written subsequently to provide an introduction to
the events in Part 2 and Part 3, which were first presented together as
The Whole Contention. In any case, Part 1 is generally thought to be less
inspired. With the Henry VI trilogy (leading up to the devastating portrayal
of evil in Richard III), Shakespeare's initial patriotic celebration of
English valour against the French was soon superseded by a mature, disillusioned
understanding of the world of politics.