A Study Guide
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Table of Contents
Type of Work Composition and Publication Sources Settings Characters Historical Background Plot Summary
Conflicts Tone Climax Themes Figures of Speech Rhyming Conversation Henry VI as a Saintly Scholar
War of the Roses Houses of Lancaster and York Questions and Essay Topics Complete Text Henry VI Part II Henry VI Part III
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2010, 2011.©
Type of Work
Henry VI Part I is a history play about the struggle for power during the reign of a young English king.
Composition and Publication
Shakespeare based Henry VI
Part I primarily on accounts in The
Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland
(Holinshed’s Chronicles), by Raphael
Holinshed (?-1580?). The first edition of the
chronicles was published in 1577 in two
volumes. Shakespeare also used The Union
of Two Noble and Illustre Families of
Lancastre and York, by Edward Hall
The plot summary will be easy
to follow if you keep in mind that the play
has three storylines. In the first, an uncle
and a great-uncle of the new English king—an
infant boy who accedes to the throne as Henry
VI in 1422 upon the death of his father—vie
for control the government while the child is
growing up. In the second, England goes to war
against France and its warrior maiden, Joan of
Arc. In the third, an English nobleman of the
House of York, who believes his family has
been cheated out of the throne over the years,
quarrels with an English nobleman who supports
the House of Lancaster, which has held the
throne since 1399. The new king is a
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Duke of Gloucester (Humphrey Plantagenet), brother of the late king and uncle of the new king. Parliament names him acting Lord Protector to oversee government affairs. His brother, the Duke of Bedford (John Plantagenet), officially holds the title of Lord Protector. However, when Bedford goes to France to lead troops in a defense of English-held French lands, he places the boy king and the government in the hands of Gloucester.At the funeral of Henry V, a bitter quarrel erupts between Gloucester and the Bishop of Winchester when the latter claims church prayers made the late king what he was. Gloucester, who believes Winchester is claiming credit for what he does not deserve, insults the bishop as a hypocrite. When Winchester insults him back, claiming Gloucester plans to take full control of the realm, Gloucester rejoins with
Thou lov’st the flesh,While this domestic feud threatens England’s future, so, too, does new war in France. Earlier, under the late Henry V, England captured certain French lands. In a 1420 peace pact known as the Treaty of Troyes, the French agreed that the King of England would become heir to the French throne. However, in 1422, the Dauphin of France, Charles, rejects the provisions of the treaty and, with considerable support, renews war with England. When his father dies late in 1422, Charles assumes the powers of the monarchy, although his step up from dauphin to king has not yet been sealed by a coronation ceremony. The English, of course, still regard their own monarch as the rightful heir of the French throne.
In the renewed war, the rebel French army of the dauphin includes forces under the following:
Reignier, Duke of Anjou.At the siege of Orléans, the French repulse the English and take as prisoner England’s fiercest warrior, Lord Talbot. But the doughty English, now led by Lord Salisbury, fight back ferociously and turn the tide back in their favor. Dauphin Charles thinks all may be lost. However, the Bastard of Orléans comes forth to inform Charles he has reason to cheer up:
Be not dismay’d, for succour is at hand:This maid is Joan La Pucelle, known to history as Joan of Arc. The Dauphin—skeptical at first that a mere teenage girl could aid the French cause—takes up a sword and tests her in a fencing match. She wins and he is now only too happy to have her fighting on his side. Joan urges her comrades to "fight till the last gasp" (1.2.133).
Back in England, Gloucester and Winchester continue their quarrel at the Tower of London. Gloucester accuses Winchester of having contrived to murder Henry V and further charges that he grants indulgences to whores. After supporters of Gloucester and Winchester clash, the mayor of London reproaches the two men for breaking the peace. Gloucester and Winchester exchange more insults, then strike out at each other. An officer of the mayor then orders everyone home on pain of death.
In France, Talbot is released, thanks to a prisoner exchange arranged by the Duke of Bedford. England now has its lion back. But when the battle for Orléans rejoins, Joan leads an attack that repels the English, claiming the lives of two English warriors, Lord Salisbury and Sir Thomas Gargrave. Talbot, amazed by her exploits, calls her a witch. The jubilant Dauphin calls her a saint. At night, redoubtable Talbot leads another attack as the English cry, “Saint George!” (expressed in a stage direction: 2.1.43). Surprised, the French flee the city half-dressed. (This part of the story is historically inaccurate; the English did not recapture Orléans.)
Meanwhile, while Gloucester and Winchester carry on their feud in England, another quarrel breaks out, this one between Richard Plantagenet, of the House of York, and John Beaufort (Earl of Somerset), of the House of Lancaster. Richard and his supporters believe the House of York was cheated out of the throne by Henry IV, the first of the Lancaster kings. Henry IV was succeeded by two other Lancaster kings, Henry V, and now the boy king, Henry VI.
In a garden in London, Richard, confronting Somerset, bids all who support him to pick a white rose from a bush. Somerset, in turn, asks all who support him to pluck a red rose. Out of this beginning, the Wars of the Roses (between the House of York, symbolized by white roses, and the House of Lancaster, symbolized by red roses) will eventually develop. Later, Richard, seeking a full explanation of why the Houses of York and Lancaster have been at odds, visits his Uncle Mortimer, the Earl of March, who is imprisoned in the Tower of London for opposing the rule of Henry IV, a Lancaster, many years ago.
Old Mortimer, who is near death, recites the history of the rivalry, pointing out that he believes he should have been king long ago instead of Henry IV. Since that time, Mortimer says, the Yorks have been unfairly treated. He cautions Richard to be wary of the Lancasters, for they are solidly entrenched in the political establishment. Shortly after Richard’s conversation with the old man, Mortimer dies. Thus, three conflicts now afflict England: (1) the Gloucester-Winchester feud, (2) the war with France, and (3) the York-Lancaster dispute between Richard Plantagenet and John Beaufort.
At a meeting in Parliament, young King Henry VI—now old enough to exert some influence—urges Gloucester and Winchester to put aside their differences for the good of the country. In a scolding appeal, the King says:
O, what a scandal is it to our crown,Gloucester and Winchester then are forced to shake hands. The king later turns to Richard, who is also present, and says,
But all the whole inheritance I giveThen he confers on Richard the title of Duke of York. Thus, now that domestic strife appears to have been contained, the King can concentrate on the war abroad. At the suggestion of Gloucester, the King travels to Paris (along with the other principals of the drama) to be crowned there to engender love among his subjects and dishearten his enemies.
When Joan of Arc captures the city of Rouen, Talbot recaptures it. Then Joan persuades Talbot’s chief ally, the Duke of Burgundy, to defect to the French. After Talbot goes to Paris for Henry’s crowning, Henry rewards him with a title, Earl of Shrewsbury, in recognition of his service. At the same time, he banishes another combatant, Sir John Fastolfe, for cowardice.
At the coronation of Henry, the domestic quarrel between Richard and Somerset resurfaces. Their supporters are wearing roses in their caps—the York faction, white ones, and the Lancaster, red ones. Although Henry wears a red rose as a Lancaster, he declares his neutrality in the quarrel. To pacify Richard and Somerset, the Crown appoints both men to high government positions, and they sally forth to fight the French.
Talbot, meanwhile, besieges Bordeaux and requests reinforcements, but Richard and Somerset argue over what should be done. As a result, no reinforcements are sent. Talbot and his son die in battle in a touching scene in which the dying father clutches the body of his dead son. The tide of battle then turns against the French, and the English capture two important prisoners: the fiendish Joan and the beautiful Margaret of Anjou. The Earl of Suffolk plans to make a match between Margaret and Henry. After the English question Joan, she flings only insults and curses back at them:
May never glorious sun reflex his beamsThe English burn Joan at the stake. Then they propose a peace in which the French ruler becomes a viceroy under the English ruler while still enjoying his royal privileges. Charles agrees to a truce while keeping in mind the advice of one of his men to break the truce when he so desires. Henry, now twenty-four, then marries Margaret of Anjou in April of 1445 at Suffolk’s urging. Suffolk, who has an eye for Margaret, is pleased. He says that Margaret will rule Henry and that he, Suffolk, will rule both Margaret and Henry.
The main conflicts in the play center on (1) the domestic feud between Gloucester and Winchester over control of the boy-king, (2) the war between England and France, and (3) the growing hostility between supporters of the House of Lancaster and supporters of the House of York. A Lancaster has sat on the throne since 1399, but the Yorkists believe they should have acceded to power. The hostility between them threatens to erupt into civil strife.
Bitter rivalry characterizes the tone of the play. For example, when the Bishop of Winchester says that his prayers made the late King Henry V what he was, he touches off the following exchange with Gloucester:
GLOUCESTER: The church! where is it? Had not churchmen pray’dIn the war between England and France, Talbot stokes the fires against the French when he tells his compatriots how the enemy treated him before he gained freedom in a prisoner exchange.
With scoffs and scorns and contumelious taunts.Meanwhile, rancorous enmity divides England into factions supporting the King (the Lancasters) and those opposing him (the Yorkists). When members of the two
factions meet in the Temple Garden in London, they pluck roses as symbols of their causes—the Lancasters a red rose and the Yorkists a white rose. Richard Plantagenet, the Yorkist leader, and the Earl of Suffolk (William de la Pole), a Lancastrian, exchange insults.
PLANTAGENET: Now, by this maiden blossom in my hand,.
The climax of a play or another literary work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax of Henry VI Part I arguably occurs, according to both definitions, when Lord Talbot and his son die, galvanizing the English into redoubling their efforts and leading to the capture and execution of Joan of Arc. A peace treaty and English-French marriage then follow to maintain comity.
Sometimes a country is its own worst enemy. England fights France, but enemies at home also imperil the welfare of England.
Women can work wonders. Joan La Pucelle (Joan of Arc) proves that on the battlefield she is the equal of any man. However, Joan is depicted as evil—a witch who uses her diabolical power to repel the English. The historic Joan is depicted as extraordinarily pious and upright, though fierce in the pursuit of her goals. She is a canonized saint of the Roman Catholic Church and one of the most admired women in European history.
Age and ambition will take advantage of youth and innocence. Self-seekers attempt to manipulate the boy-king, Henry VI, in order to control the government.
True heroism is selfless. Although most of the characters in the play take risks for personal gain, the great English warrior Talbot puts himself in peril for the welfare of England—and his son, John, follows in his footsteps. Both die bravely in battle. Talbot's heroism carries on the patriotic tradition of Henry V, who is mourned at the beginning of the play..
Shakespeare's skill as a writer derives in large part from his ability to compose memorable figures of speech. He exhibits this power in Henry VI Part I. Shakespeare wrote the play at the beginning of his career in London, when he was attempting to establish a reputation as a playwright. Following are examples of the types of figures of speech in the play. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.
Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night! (1.1.1)Anaphora
Between two hawks, which flies the higher pitch;Apostrophe
Comets, importing change of times and states,Hyperbole
His [Henry V's] brandish’d sword did blind men with his beams;Metaphor
Your hearts I’ll stamp out with my horse’s heelsParadox
But now the arbitrator of despairs,Simile
Glory is like a circle in the water,
Shakespeare uses rhyming conversation in Henry VI Part I. The following exchange between Talbot and his son demonstrates this device:
TALBOT: Shall all thy mother's hopes lie in one tomb?
depicts Henry VI as weak and ineffectual, as he
was in real life. However, the historical Henry
did possess some praiseworthy qualities, notably
his piety as a devout Catholic and his love of
learning and education. He exhibited the latter
quality when he established Eton College in 1440
as the King's College of Our Lady of Eton
Beside Windsor, providing scholarships
for deserving boys who enrolled. Henry also
founded Cambridge University's King's College to
enable Eton boys to continue their
Lineage of the Houses of Lancaster and York
House of Lancaster: Henry
IV ("Bolingbroke," son of the Duke of
Lancaster), 1399-1413. Age at death: 47. Henry
V (son of Henry IV), 1413-1422. Age at death:
34. Henry VI (son of Henry V, deposed),
1422-1471. Age at death: 49.
Henry Bolingbroke's ascendancy to the English throne as Henry IV was the germinal event that triggered the War of the Roses (1455-1485) between the House of York and the House of Lancaster—founded by Bolingbroke's father, John of Gaunt. For additional information on the War of the Roses, click here.
Which character in the play is the most
admirable? Which is the least admirable?