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.
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