Monday, January 10, 2011

The First Part of Henry VI: Background Notes

1 Henry VI begins Shakespeare’s first historical tetralogy, if you leave out Henry VIII and King John. Though chronologically out of order, he wrote the Henry VI plays and Richard III before Richard II, the Henry IV plays, and Henry V. I’ve never read these early works, probably because they are not highly regarded and for many years were disputed in terms of authorship by some. It seems quirky, if nothing else, that Shakespeare devoted three plays to the story of such an ineffectual, possibly mad king as Henry VI. Nevertheless, as Hershel Baker wrote in the Riverside intro, “if the Henry VI plays had served no other purpose, it would have been enough that they supplied him [Shakespeare] an apprenticeship and prepared him for that great event [writing Richard III].”

All three plays deal with England’s gradual loss of French territory, increased factions among nobles, and eventual civil war due to internal strife. This first part focuses on the loss of France--if one can call a compression of thirty years into five acts focusing--and encompasses Henry V’s funeral, Joan of Arc’s triumph and death, hints at the beginning of the War of the Roses, and ends with the betrothal of Margaret of Anjou to the king. The plays may be viewed as a justification for the Tudor rule after Richard III but also more broadly as Shakespeare’s attempt to dramatize the causes and patterns of a medieval past for the audience of the Elizabethan present. (See Tony Tanner’s Prefaces to Shakespeare for more if you’re interested--it’s great!)

I’m curious to see if the play will seem “less Shakespearean” since it was his earliest. I’d also be interested to find out whether there are any recent performances that have been recorded of it. I noticed in passing somewhere that the three plays have been combined and abridged in various performances but I’m not sure if 1 Henry VI has been performed on its own very often.

Brief challenge housekeeping notes: Please feel free to post comments or links to anything you all are posting about your reading here. I will create a January review page once I finish my own reading but if I’m too slow for you, please feel free to post your review links here as well. Also, if you’ve joined recently and your blog requires an invitation to view it, please invite me! And, welcome everyone--I’m so excited that so many of you joined me!


  1. Since I'm doing the Henry V level I thought I might as well start with...Henry V! Plus, might as well get the "less desirable" ones done with first!

  2. Hi there! Just curious - I'll be posting sort of tangential things to the Shakespeare challenge, like a notice of a one-woman Lear in London and reviews of books like the Ackroyd biography of Shakespeare and A Thousand Acres. Would these be suitable for the review page? If not that's fine - I'm just sort of using the challenge as a time to also read some "ephemera" if you will. Thanks very much and happy reading!

  3. @Kate--Sure, anything Shakespearean is welcome, to keep the conversation flowing.