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  • Writer's pictureMackenzie Elisa

King Henry VI part 1

Setting: 1422-1444 AD

England and France


My really abridged plot summary: In England, King Henry V has died, and his son, Henry VI, is about to be crowned, but is still too young. In France, the English general, Talbot has been taken prisoner. The bastard of Orléans takes Joan (yes, this is Joan of Arc) to see the new French King, Charles, where she challenges him to single combat to gain his confidence in her ability to lead an army. Back in London, Gloucester has been ruling until Henry comes of age. In France, Joan bests Talbot in battle, but he orchestrates a sneak attack and ultimately takes Orléans. Back in London (again), Plantagenet and Somerset pluck red and white roses (as in the War of the Roses) as a looming metaphor of the incoming war (this scene is a real treat for any history nerd). Mortimer learns of his family's historic right to the throne (remember this for part 2), while tensions continue to grow between the factions. Meanwhile, Talbot has defeated the French in battle and Joan devises a plan to win Burgundy's favor. Henry tries to diffuse tensions in his court after he arrives in France, as to not appear weak to the French. He places York in charge of the English troops, and Somerset in charge of the cavalry. Talbot is trapped by the French again, and a miscommunication regarding military action causes further drama between York and Somerset. Talbot's son, John, arrives to rescue his father, but he is wounded and killed. This causes Talbot to also die of grief. The French defeat the English army, and Charles agrees to make peace with England. Joan calls on her demons for help (because women are witches *rolls eyes*), but is captured by York. Suffolk captures Margaret (of Anjou) and begins to woo her for Henry, but not before flirting with her himself (also, he's married). Joan is burnt at the stake for witchcraft (true story). Charles begrudgingly accepts a peace with England, but alludes to the idea that this peace could always be broken later (no comment). Henry agrees to marry Margaret, much to the satisfaction of Suffolk. Suffolk soliloquizes how he can use Margaret as a pawn to manipulate the King, so he will be the one in power... to be continued in TWO more plays.

My favorite quotes:

Here I prophesy: this brawl today,

Grown to this faction in the Temple garden,

Shall send, between the red rose and the white,

A thousand souls to death and deadly night.

~Warwick II.iv

So doth the swan her downy cygnets save,

Keeping them prisoners underneath her wings.

~Suffolk V.iii


  • Overall Impression: 7- So I really love the Wars of the Roses, I think this period of history is FASCINATING, very complicated, but fascinating nonetheless. I really appreciate all of the political intrigue going on in this play- it's very Game of Thrones-y, which is such a coincidence.... FUN FACT! Games of Thrones is HEAVILY inspired by the Wars of the Roses, so if you like the political intrigue in GoT, I really think you'd enjoy the Henry VI plays! This play is literally all over the place, changing location literally every single scene. I really think that this play needs the other two parts to accompany it, or it doesn't feel complete. Interestingly enough though, I don't feel the same way about the Henry IV plays. I think this is mainly because parts 2 and 3 of Henry VI's story were written before part 1! Shakespeare had to go back and write part 1 to complete the story, I respect his efforts to round out the story.

  • Use of Language: 7- The poetry in this one is fine enough, I'm giving this play a 7 because I LOVE the witty word play between Plantagenet and Somerset during the rose scene. It's so layered with political foreshadowing. Very clever, Shakes!

  • Protagonist Arc: 7- So we literally don't even meet Henry until ACT THREE of this play! HELLO?!? So idk how good of a protagonist he is... yet? I think we get a wonderful arc with Talbot, however. His death and relationship with his son are quite touching.

  • Female Characters: 7- So there's some stuff to discuss here. Y'all know I LOVE Margaret of Anjou, as both a character and as a historical figure. She is the OG She-Wolf (I know that term is loaded and sexist, but I mean it as the highest of compliments). I'm not gonna rank her super well in this play, because she's really only in like two scenes and just gets manipulated by men the whole time, so no... she has better things to come. The Countess has a small, but memorable role, so she's pretty cool. Now, Joan is an interesting figure in this play. She's portrayed as a powerful and strategic soldier (this is true), but then Shakes. goes full send with the witchcraft stuff. Up until the fifth act, she is a nuanced and layered character, but come act V, she's simplified into an outdated and misogynistic understanding of this real woman. This jarring dichotomy between her earlier and later characterizations has led scholars to believe that another playwright (maybe Marlowe) had a hand in writing this play. I have a lot to say about the ways in which French women are characterized and perceived in the Shakespearean canon (particularly the Histories) compared to English women, maybe I'll do a whole post on this one day. You can read more on the characterization of Joan here.

  • Fits Genre: 10- I mean yeah, it's a quintessential history.

  • Overall Enjoyment: 8- I'm an English History nerd, so I did enjoy this play a lot from a political perspective, but from a dramatic one, it's meh.

  • Hype Worthy: 6- I'm a firm believer that the Histories are really just Tragedies, but about (semi) recent monarchs, so they're *mostly* (ok maybe just a little bit) historically accurate. There's more interesting History plays for casual readers and audiences, but I really like this play in context of doing all three Henry VI plays in rep!

  • Emotional Impact: 6- Meh. This play is really political compared to the other Histories, which is saying a lot! Joan's story is really difficult to watch as a woman, but this is coming from my biased 21st century lived experience. I think the most emotional part, as intended by Shakespeare, is the relationship between Talbot and John.

Total: 58/80

Average: 7

*4 out of 5 stars*

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