King Henry VI Part 1 (Arden Shakespeare Third Series)

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William Shakespeare edited by Edward Burns

DOI: 10.5040/9781408160336.00000007
Acts: 5. Scenes: 23. Roles: Male (45) , Female (2) , Neutral (0)

The history play King Henry VI, Part 1 can be seen as a mediation on history itself, on the mechanisms of genealogy, combat and heroism. The dominant character of Joan la Pucelle (otherwise Joan of Arc) is a locus of questions about gender and the supernatural.

Questions of authorship, date and place in a ‘historical cycle’ are attendant on the play, which was first printed in the Folio. Some editors claiming single authorship for Shakespeare; for others it is the result of a collaboration, probably including Thomas Nashe. The Arden edition argues that it was written after Parts 2 and 3. It may be the play which records show was performed in 1592 by the Lord Strange’s Men at the Rose theatre.

The young Henry VI is now king. At the funeral of Henry V, news arrives of military difficulties in France: cities have been lost, the Dauphin Charles has been crowned, and the military captain Talbot has been taken prisoner. The English nobles squabble over power. The rivalry between Richard Plantagenet (later Duke of York) and the Duke of Somerset escalates, and they pluck a white and a red rose respectively to represent the House of York and the House of Lancaster. Henry travels to France to be crowned.

In France, Joan la Pucelle has arrived at the siege of Orléans, promising that heaven-sent powers will help her to lead the French to victory. Put in charge of the army, she fights the English — led first by the Duke of Bedford and then by Talbot – for Orléans and Rouen. Joan also persuades the Duke of Burgundy, Henry’s uncle, to switch to the French side. The feud between Richard and Somerset results in the defeat of the British army at Bordeaux, and the death of Talbot. Joan is captured and condemned to death. The play ends with an uneasy peace, as Henry marries Margaret, the daughter of the Duke of Anjou, instead of the Earl of Armagnac’s daughter.