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Henry VI Part One: A New Kind of Play by a New Playwright

Henry VI Part One: A New Kind of Play by a New Playwright

By Ace G. Pilkington

     Henry VI Part One (the first play in Shakespeare’s first tetralogy, which was most likely written sometime between 1589 and 1592) begins with the funeral of Henry V and ends with Henry VI’s proxy marriage to Margaret of Anjou, the French queen’s niece. In between, Lord Talbot and Joan of Arc fight it out both physically and symbolically, the English lose France, and Shakespeare contrasts one of England’s most successful kings with one of its worst failures. The Duke of Gloucester says of Henry V, “England ne’er had a king until his time./ Virtue he had, deserving to command./ His brandished sword did blind men with his beams./ His arms spread wider than a dragon’s wings.” While most of that is hyperbole, the last line of Gloucester’s speech about his dead brother is much closer to the truth, “He ne’er lift up his hand but conquered” (all references to the play are from The Norton Shakespeare Based on the Oxford Edition [London: Norton, 1997], 1.1.8-11 and 16). In William Shakespeare, the Wars of the Roses and the Historians, Keith Dockray says something very similar but with more examples, “Henry V was probably the greatest English general before Marlborough in the early eighteenth century; his great success at Agincourt . . . thoroughly humiliated the French, and as a result, the English gained a reputation for invincibility . . . that was to last until the catastrophic defeat of Henry VI’s forces in Formigny in 1450” ([Oxford: Fonthill Media, 2016], 56).

     Nor is it hard to find other examples of Henry V’s remarkable abilities. Tito Livio, whose patron was Duke Humphrey (Gloucester) himself, wrote around 1437 that the king was “taller than most men . . . his limbs slender and marvelously strong. Indeed, he was miraculously fleet of foot, faster than any dog or arrow. Often he would run with his companions in pursuit of the swiftest of does and he . . .  would always be the one to catch the creature” (cited in Elizabeth Hallam, ed. The Chronicles of The Wars of the Roses [Wane, NJ: CLB International, 1988], 119). Henry V was held up as the ideal medieval king, but unlike some of his contemporaries (and his son), he also had modern skills. In 1453, the actual Lord Talbot (as opposed to Shakespeare’s ever-heroic avatar) “made a textbook error, leading a cavalry charge uphill against a fortified camp defended by 300 cannon. One in ten of his troops was killed before they reached the palisades, including Talbot himself. From that day the only English possession left in France was . . . Calais” (Rebecca Fraser, The Story of Britain [New York: Norton, 2005], 224). Henry V, on the other hand, “studied the art of war and used artillery on a scale hitherto unknown, reducing strongly fortified towns by bombardment and fierce assault” (Hallam 122). No wonder Michael Hattaway says (in his Introduction to The First Part of King Henry VI), “Henry V will haunt the ensuing action like the Ghost in Hamlet, he is a presence whose honour, prowess, and acquisition of empire throw into contrast the attacks of fatalism and debilitating piety suffered by his contemplative son” (New Cambridge Shakespeare series [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990], 5). In Derek Wilson’s words, “What lay at the root of widespread and growing discontent was the personal ineffectiveness of the king. Not only was Henry the first king not to lead his armies in foreign battle, he was also incapable of directing policy” (The Plantagenet Chronicles 1154-1485 [New York: Metro Books, 2011], 328-329).

     There was another sense in which Henry V was a part of this story, a part of the new kind of history and the new history plays that were becoming popular in Shakespeare’s London following the English victory over the Spanish Armada. There was a general notion that history should contain more fact than fable, more real events than instructive examples. As Francis Bacon put it, “We are much beholden to Machiavelli and others, that write what men do, and not what they ought to do” (Meditationes sacræ [Londini: Excusum impensis Humfredi Hooper, 1597], Book II, xxi, 9). Henry V was real, not only in books and on the stage but also in his tomb. “In the 1590s when Shakespeare and his audiences came to visit Westminster Abbey, Henry V’s military memorials were still colourful and bright. . . . The painted arms of the King, the blue and gold velvet were still on the sumptuously covered saddle; the blue figured Chinese silks that lined his shield had not yet faded, and a painted leopard crest was still in place on the dented helmet” (Neil MacGregor, Shakespeare’s Restless World [New York: Viking, 2012], 79).

     Shakespeare first made his name as a playwright with this new kind of play. He took on a complex story of the undoing of an empire and the unraveling of a dynasty, showing the battles and the politics, the national struggles and the family squabbles that turned success to failure and pride to despair. It involved the end of the Hundred Years War and the course of the Wars of the Roses. Winston Churchill calls it "the most ferocious and implacable quarrel of which there is factual record," and says, "Only Shakespeare, basing himself largely upon Hall's Chronicle, has portrayed its savage yet heroic lineaments.  He does not attempt to draw conclusions, and for dramatic purposes telescopes events and campaigns" (The Birth of Britain [New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1956], 442). Of course, Shakespeare had Holinshed as well as Hall and other sources too, but Churchill is essentially right. In Michael Hattaway’s words, “To dramatise all this was massively ambitious, innovative—there were no popular plays on English history before the Armada in 1588” (4). Shakespeare was changing not only the theatre but also the very notion of how the past had shaped the present. For a new playwright, it may have seemed as big an adventure as Henry V’s assault on France itself.

     At the end of this first part of the tetralogy, Shakespeare had to create a structure to hold everything together and prepare the audience for the next installment. What would Henry VI do when he had not so far been able to dominate the tale of his own life or determine the running of the country which he was meant to rule? What part of England’s long defeat was the fault of Henry V’s brothers and half-brothers fighting amongst themselves, what part of it was due to English cowardice or treachery and what part of it could be ascribed to French courage or French evil, to Joan as witch and not, as her supporters claimed, Joan as saint? Would that spirit of English heroism incarnate in Henry V and Lord Talbot rise again? Or would William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, who ended the play with the words, “Margaret shall now be queen, and rule the king:/ But I will rule both her, the king, and realm” (5.5.107–108) prove a prophet as well as a villain? A new kind of play and a new playwright were well and truly launched upon London. And for the first time this summer, Henry VI Part I will be performed at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.