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Henry VI, Part 1 /

A Modern Perspective: Henry VI, Part 1

By Phyllis Rackin

In recent years, Shakespeare’s earliest history plays have been enjoying a minor theatrical revival, but they still have a long way to go before attaining the popularity of their successors. The three parts of Henry VI are rarely performed; and on those rare occasions when they do reach the stage, they are typically cut and conflated into either a two-play series or a single two-part play. This neglect is not confined to the theater: the plays are rarely reprinted and seldom discussed by scholars. The current consensus is that they are vastly inferior to Shakespeare’s later, better-known English history plays, such as Richard III, the two parts of Henry IV, and Henry V.

This modern neglect is worth questioning, since the Henry VI plays—and Part 1 in particular—seem to have been extremely popular when they were first performed at the end of the sixteenth century. In 1592, Thomas Nashe published a satirical pamphlet titled Pierce Penilesse his Supplication to the Divell, which included a defense of stage plays and the earliest reference we have to any of Shakespeare’s plays. The play Nashe mentioned was Henry VI, Part 1. “How would it have joyed brave Talbot (the terror of the French),” he wrote, “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 (at several times), who, in the tragedian that represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.”1 Nashe’s claim that at least ten thousand spectators saw the play may actually be too conservative. The records of the initial receipts left by the theater manager, Philip Henslowe, suggest a figure closer to twenty thousand. In fact, only one of the many other plays Henslowe produced earned more.

The play’s initial popularity was short-lived. Only one production was recorded during the Restoration and eighteenth century—a period when it was dismissed as a “Drum-and-trumpet Thing,” the work of another playwright that was merely “furbished up” by Shakespeare “with here and there a little sentiment and diction.”2 When Henry VI, Part 1 was revived in 1738, the playbill declared that it had not been “acted these fifty years.”3 In the nineteenth century, no less an authority than Samuel Taylor Coleridge believed that one had only to read the opening speech aloud to “feel the impossibility of [its] having been written by Shakespeare.”4

This long-standing consensus about the inferiority of the Henry VI plays persists, even when they are successfully performed on stage. A case in point is Barry Kyle’s 1995 production at the Theater for a New Audience in New York. The critics generally agreed that the performance was a stunning success. The New York Post described it as a “thrilling theatrical experience,” the Daily News as one that no fan of Shakespeare’s should miss.5 Nonetheless, for at least one reviewer, the low status of the plays was unaffected by this clear demonstration of their theatrical power. “Thanks to good performances in the leading roles,” the New York Times declared, “the productions are effective and surprisingly engaging. . . . [This] is no small feat. There are problems with the plays.”6 However, none of the “problems” the reviewer proceeds to list holds up under examination. The first two—that the plays contain “few recognizable lines” and that Shakespeare was probably not their sole author—are entirely circular. They rely on the plays’ lack of canonical status to explain why they do not deserve that status. The third—that the history depicted in the Henry VI plays is inaccurate—is a charge that could be brought against every one of Shakespeare’s English history plays, even the most admired.

This is not to say that the reviewer’s information is inaccurate—only that it does not justify his low opinion of the play. There is considerable evidence that other playwrights, including Thomas Nashe himself, had a hand in the writing of Henry VI, Part 1. The likelihood of multiple authorship is supported by numerous inconsistencies in the only text we have, the one that was published after Shakespeare’s death in the First Folio, and also by the fact that at the time the play was written, collaborative authorship was the norm rather than the exception in plays written for the new public, commercial theaters. Moreover, the names of a play’s writers often went unrecorded, even on the title pages of printed texts. The reviewer’s reliance on sole authorship as a criterion of dramatic merit seems doubly anachronistic, both too modern to reflect the priorities of Shakespeare’s first audiences and too old-fashioned to reflect the tastes of current audiences, who are accustomed to seeing both films and television drama that are the products of multiple authors.

Objections to the episodic plot seem equally anachronistic. The chronicle histories that constituted the chief sources for the play’s content were organized, as the name “chronicle” implies, by order of time rather than narrative causality, a practice that often resulted in the juxtaposition of events that had no relationship other than chronological coincidence. In addition, sixteenth-century playgoers would have been familiar with numerous dramatic precedents for what looked to post-Shakespearean readers like defective plotting in the Henry VI plays, not only in other London commercial plays but also in the traditional dramatizations of biblical history that were performed throughout the country. The neoclassical rule that dramatic action must be unified was known in Shakespeare’s time, but it was rarely observed in practice. Sir Philip Sidney, writing at about the same time that the Henry VI plays were first produced, cited the failure to observe the dramatic unities as a characteristic defect of the English drama;7 but very few contemporary playwrights followed his strictures. Playwrights of our own time, ranging from the writers of popular soap operas to the admired authors of elite, avant-garde plays, are similarly indifferent to neoclassical requirements for dramatic unity, which now seem increasingly outdated and inadequate to accommodate the subtleties of postmodern drama.

Whether or not Nashe had a hand in writing Henry VI, Part 1, the virtues he found in it provide a useful key to interpretation. Nashe identified the history play as a preserver of “our forefathers’ valiant acts” that would otherwise lie buried in “rusty brass and worm-eaten books.” In those plays, he wrote, the dead heroes are raised from “the grave of oblivion.”8 Seen in this light, the entire action of Henry VI, Part 1 can be understood as a series of efforts on the part of the English to preserve the legacy of Henry V against the menaces, both domestic and foreign, that threaten to erase it. At the beginning of Part 1, the idealized King Henry V has just died, and the subsequent action shows the death of the chivalric, civic, patriotic, and ethical virtues associated with him—often in the person of members of the older generation, such as Lord Talbot and the dead king’s brothers, who exemplify the virtues of that older world. The episodic plot can be explained as a symptom of divided authorship, but it can also be interpreted as the necessary structure for dramatizing a world where authority is likewise divided and problematic. The play has no strong, central character; the young king is powerless to control his unruly nobles, and there is no evidence of a divine providence shaping the outcome of events. In the chaotic world of Henry VI, good intentions are as likely to end in disaster as success. Even the conclusion of the play is open-ended, concluding nothing but simply initiating actions that will be pursued in subsequent plays.

The loss of Henry V’s legacy of national unity and heroic conquest is prefigured in the opening scene, when the dead king’s funeral is interrupted by quarrels among the nobles and by the arrival of messengers from France. At the point of this interruption, the dead king’s brother, the Duke of Bedford, has been attempting to secure Henry’s place in heroic history. Invoking Henry’s ghost, Bedford declares “A far more glorious star thy soul will make / Than Julius Caesar or bright—” (1.1.56–57). At this point, Bedford’s invocation is cut off by the entrance of a messenger, who announces that eight French cities have been lost. With the loss of Henry’s French conquests, the messenger laments, half the English coat of arms—the fleur-de-lis that represented England’s claim to the French throne—has been “cut away” (1.1.83).

For the characters in the play, as for the playgoers Nashe described, the stakes in the battle for France are explicitly defined as England’s place in history. Even the French refer to the history of English heroic conquest. In the second scene, after an English victory at Orleance, Alanson proclaims that the account of English heroism during the time of Edward III, written by the medieval French historian Froissart, has now been “verified” (1.2.29–32). Later in that same scene, when Pucelle arrives at court promising to chase the remaining English from France, she too invokes English history. “Glory,” she says, “is like a circle in the water. . . . With Henry’s death, the English circle ends” (1.2.136, 139). The French thus fight to erase English heroic history; the English fight to preserve it.

The struggle for Orleance continues. Pucelle momentarily recaptures the city, and then the English hero Talbot retakes it. Having done so, he immediately declares that old Salisbury, who had been killed in the previous battle, will be buried in the city’s “chiefest temple.” This scene is fictitious, because Salisbury was actually buried in England, but Talbot’s determination to bury him in France reiterates what is at stake in the military struggle. In order “that hereafter ages may behold,” Talbot says, he will erect a tomb for Salisbury,

Upon the which, that everyone may read,

Shall be engraved the sack of Orleance,

The treacherous manner of his mournful death,

And what a terror he had been to France.


The French city will become the site for the inscription of English heroic history.

Earlier, when Pucelle had captured Orleance for the French, the Dauphin declared his intention to celebrate her victory with a monument, but his plans are significantly different from Talbot’s. The Dauphin promised to erect for Pucelle “A statelier pyramis . . . / Than Rhodophe’s of Memphis ever was” (1.6.21–22); but this monument, unlike the tomb that Talbot plans for Salisbury, will apparently contain no inscription. It is also noteworthy that the prototype of the monument the Dauphin envisions is a pyramid constructed for a Greek courtesan who married an Egyptian king. Here and elsewhere, when the French invoke history, the figures they choose are drawn from a variety of exotic foreign lands. The Dauphin further promises that when Pucelle dies, her ashes will be carried “in an urn more precious / Than the rich-jeweled coffer of Darius” (1.6.24–25), a Persian king. The French Countess of Auvergne declares that if she can capture Talbot, she will be “as famous” as “Scythian Tamyris,” who killed Cyrus, another Persian king (2.3.5–6). It is as if the French have no national history of their own.

The French are characterized as opposite to the English in a number of other ways as well, and here too Nashe’s claims are suggestive. Talbot, the English hero, exemplifies the aristocratic ideals of chivalric warfare and noble lineage that Nashe associates with a glorious English past. When Talbot is captured, the French initially offer to exchange him for “a baser man-of-arms by far,” but Talbot refuses, declaring that he would rather die than be so cheaply valued (1.4.30–33). He will not allow himself to be ransomed until the French agree to exchange him for a brave captive of noble rank. In his defense of stage plays, Nashe castigates their opponents as lacking not only patriotism but also nobility and manhood—two qualities that are exemplified by Talbot but notably lacking in Pucelle. In fact, the play constructs a schematic opposition between the two: Talbot is old, and Pucelle is young; Talbot is a gentleman, Pucelle a peasant. He fights according to the code of chivalry; she resorts to dishonorable stratagems.

Pucelle and the French forces she leads embody the disorderly objects of present fears, the very people and values that Nashe identifies as threatening traditional order. Salisbury’s death, which Talbot denounces as an act of treachery, comes at the hands of a French boy sniper. Even at the upper reaches of the social hierarchy, the French have no regard for the chivalric values that animate Talbot. The Dauphin is delighted by the “happy stratagem” (3.2.18) that Pucelle uses to capture Roan: she has disguised herself as the peasant she truly is to enter the city on the pretext that she and the soldiers who accompany her are simply “Poor market folks that come to sell their corn” (3.2.15). The French Countess of Auvergne graciously invites Talbot to visit her castle, but when he arrives, she insults him and treacherously attempts to take him prisoner.

The fact that both Pucelle and the Countess are women is crucial to their identity as opponents to the ideals associated with English heroic history. For Nashe, the sight of “our forefathers” on stage constituted a “reproof to these degenerate, effeminate days of ours.”9 In Henry VI, Part 1, the death of Henry V threatens to leave England with “none but women left to wail the dead” (1.1.52). The infant Henry VI turns out to be an ineffectual, effeminate king, and the remaining representatives of heroic English manhood are threatened by enemies who are literally female.

Like Pucelle, the Countess explicitly threatens the historic record of English military glory. It is not simply Talbot that she attempts to destroy: it is also his heroic reputation. When Talbot enters, she mocks,

                    Is this the scourge of France?

Is this the Talbot, so much feared abroad . . . ?

I see report is fabulous and false.

I thought I should have seen some Hercules,

A second Hector, for his grim aspect

And large proportion of his strong-knit limbs.

Alas, this is a child, a silly [i.e., feeble] dwarf!

It cannot be this weak and writhled shrimp

Should strike such terror to his enemies.


Such insults suggest that Talbot’s role was originally assigned to a small actor. In contrast to Nashe’s claim that the sight of heroes like Talbot onstage would inspire the playgoers, the Countess argues that Talbot’s appearance shows that the reports of his remarkable exploits are “fabulous and false.” But she does not have the last word. “You are deceived,” says Talbot: “I am but shadow of myself” (2.3.52–53). His true “substance, sinews, arms, and strength,” he explains, consist of the crowd of English soldiers he immediately summons to the stage to thwart the Countess’s plan to capture him (2.3.65) and verify the heroic reputation she has attempted to discredit. The dialogue would have had a double resonance in Shakespeare’s playhouse: the word “shadow” is likely to have reminded Shakespeare’s first audiences that the Talbot they saw onstage was quite literally a “shadow” of his true self, since actors were often called “shadows.” The French woman reminds the audience of the inadequacy of the physical body they see, but the English man speaks for a heroic history that eludes the testimony of the senses.

Pucelle, like the Countess, also invokes the evidence of the senses to challenge Talbot’s heroic reputation. Late in the play, Sir William Lucy, not knowing that Talbot has been killed, looks for him on the battlefield. He asks the Dauphin,

   where’s the great Alcides of the field,

Valiant Lord Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury,

Created for his rare success in arms

Great Earl of Washford, Waterford, and Valence,

Lord Talbot of Goodrich and Urchinfield,

Lord Strange of Blackmere, Lord Verdon of Alton,

Lord Cromwell of Wingfield, Lord Furnival of


The thrice victorious Lord of Falconbridge,

Knight of the noble Order of Saint George,

Worthy Saint Michael, and the Golden Fleece,

Great Marshal to Henry the Sixth

Of all his wars within the realm of France?


Lucy here identifies Talbot by listing the heroic titles that designate his noble lineage and great military achievements. It is not the Dauphin who replies but Pucelle; and, like the Countess, she focuses on Talbot’s body to discredit the idealized history recorded in the glorious names that Lucy has just recited:

Here’s a silly stately style indeed.

The Turk, that two-and-fifty kingdoms hath,

Writes not so tedious a style as this.

Him that thou magnifi’st with all these titles

Stinking and flyblown lies here at our feet.


Pucelle’s vigorous language, based in earthy, material fact, threatens to topple the imposing formal edifice that Lucy has erected with his list of titles. Like the Countess’s scornful description of Talbot’s diminutive body, it subjects the proud language of English heroical history to the challenge of a skeptical female voice.

Shortly thereafter, Pucelle’s voice is silenced. After York captures her in battle, they have a brief dialogue in which the object of contention is whether Pucelle will be allowed to speak. First, she curses; York responds by ordering “hold thy tongue”; Pucelle replies “I prithee give me leave to curse awhile,” but York refuses, leading her offstage instead (5.3.39–44). Pucelle will appear in only one subsequent scene, and there she is thoroughly degraded, first denying that she is the daughter of the humble shepherd who has, he says, sought for her far and near, and then attempting to evade execution by a series of frantic, futile, self-contradictory lies. Instead of discrediting English historical mythmaking, Pucelle’s speech now serves only to discredit herself, reducing her to the object of her English captors’—and the playgoers’—ridicule.

Nonetheless, the play does not end happily for the English. No sooner does York lead Pucelle from the stage than Suffolk enters with another French woman in hand. Suffolk’s captive is Margaret of Anjou, soon to become the treacherous queen of Henry VI and to prove, in the subsequent plays that depict the remainder of Henry’s reign, a much more serious threat to the preservation of English heroic history than Pucelle or the Countess. As the Duke of Gloucester foretells, the marriage between Henry and Margaret will be “fatal” to the English nobility, “cancelling” their “fame,” “blotting” their “names from books of memory,” “razing” the records of their “renown,” “Defacing monuments of conquered France,” and “Undoing all, as [if] all had never been” (Henry VI, Part 2 1.1.104–08). Henry VI, Part 1 initiates that lengthy process of undoing. For readers and playgoers who prefer happy, triumphant endings, it has long proved a disappointment. But now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, when triumphant conclusions no longer seem so convincing, the play may well be due for a major revival.

  1. Thomas Nashe, Pierce Penilesse his Supplication to the Divell (London, 1592), sig. H2r.
  2. Maurice Morgann, An Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff (London, 1777), pp. 49–50.
  3. Quoted in David Bevington, “The Henry VI Plays in Performance,” in Henry VI, Parts One, Two, and Three, by Shakespeare (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), p. xxv.
  4. Notes and Lectures upon Shakespeare and Some of the Old Poets and Dramatists with Other Literary Remains of S. T. Coleridge, ed. Mrs. H. N. Coleridge (London: William Pickering, 1849), 1:187.
  5. Clive Barnes, “Troupe’s ‘Henry VI’ Fit for a King,” New York Post, March 8, 1995; Thomas M. Disch, “Regarding ‘Henry’—Highly,” Daily News, March 7, 1995.
  6. Wilborn Hampton, “3 into 2: History Plays Rearranged,” New York Times, March 7, 1995.
  7. Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry (London, 1595), sigs. I4v–K1r.
  8. Nashe, Pierce Penilesse, sig. H2r.
  9. Ibid.