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Theatre / Henry VI Part 1

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As the play is Older Than Steam and based on historical events, and as most twists in Shakespeare's plots are now widely known, all spoilers on this page are unmarked.

Civil dissension is a viperous worm
That gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth.
Henry VI, III.i

A history play by William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, where Marlowe is believed to have written the majority of Part 1, Henry VI Part 1 is the first of three plays describing the end of The Hundred Years War and the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses. Part 1 deals with the resumed war between the French and English and sets up many of the conflicts that run through the other two plays, but critics are divided over the quality of the play: older critics deride it for its use of violence and conventions, while more modern critics are more positive, emphasizing its themes of failing chivalry and patriotism. The other two plays are Henry VI Part 2 and Henry VI Part 3.

The play opens with the funeral of the great warrior king Henry V (though his play would be written later), and we see already that the English nobles are beginning to feud among themselves.

Meanwhile, in France, the great chivalric knight Sir John Talbot is meeting new resistance from an unexpected source — a woman. La Pucelle (i.e., Joan of Arc) has arrived in the Dauphin's camp and revitalised his flagging army. Joan distinguishes herself by her unconventional, underhanded style of warfare, directly contradicting and ultimately destroying Talbot's outdated ideas of chivalry and honourable combat. This, together with the cowardly Fastolf (a precursor to Falstaff), signals the end of the chivalric age.

The young king, Henry VI, arrives for his coronation in France and tries to reconcile the feuding nobles, who have by now divided themselves into two camps symbolised by red and white roses. He inadvertently makes things worse by seeming to favour the Red Rose faction (Winchester), then sending the two chief rivals out at the head of two parts of his army — a recipe for disaster. The Dukes of York (leader of the White Rose faction) and Somerset (leader of the Red Rose faction) refuse to come to each other's aid in battle and as a result, Talbot is abandoned by both and killed by the French. York manages to defeat the French and captures Joan, whom he orders to be burned at the stake.

One of the spoils of the English victory is a young French princess, Margaret of Anjou. The Earl of Suffolk plots to marry her to King Henry and thereby gain influence over the throne, setting up events in the next installment.

This play provides examples of:

  • Anachronism Stew: A character is referred to as a "Machiavel" during the play, at least one generation before Niccolò Machiavelli was born and even longer before he ever wrote The Prince. However, the events in the play presage Machiavellianism, especially in the feuding nobles and Joan's strategies, directly leading to the end of the chivalric model in Talbot's death.
  • Anti-Hero: Almost everyone, with the notable exception of Talbot, who is a hero in the classic chivalric model, and whose death symbolizes the end of the chivalric era, and the start of political machinations in warfare.
  • Artistic License – History: Contrary to what the play shows, John Talbot outlived Joan of Arc by more than two decades; Joan was burned at the stake in 1431, while Talbot was killed in battle in 1453. He also met his end at Gascony, not Bordeaux.
  • Burn the Witch!: The eventual (offscreen) fate of Joan.
  • Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys: When Joan isn't present, the French are successfully routed just by shouting the name of the English hero Talbot at them. The only way the French succeed at anything in the play (according to the English) is through trickery, treason, and witchcraft.
  • A Child Shall Lead Them: Henry mentions he was crowned at nine months old. Averted in that it's made clear that the ensuing power vacuum caused incredible civil strife.
  • Da Chief: Talbot
  • Deal with the Devil: Suggested to be the key to Joan's success in battle. An alternate interpretation is that she only did so near the end of the war out of desperation.
  • Everyone Is Related: Expected, given that almost every major character is of noble blood and there's not that much to go around.
  • Evil Chancellor: Richard Beaufort, Cardinal of Winchester and illegitimate son of John of Gaunt, schemes to be the power behind young Henry.
  • Expecting Someone Taller: The countess of Auvergne when she sees Talbot.
  • A Father to His Men: Literally in Talbot's case as his son fights and dies under his command.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: Neither the French nor the English are cast in a particularly flattering light, and the two armies are shown internally ridiculing each other for the exact same perceived flaws.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade:
    • Even in Shakespeare's time, it was known that charges of heresy and crossdressing pressed against Joan of Arc were a Kangaroo Court, and accusations of witchcraft never went to trial. In this play, it's suggest she really did make a Deal with the Devil to aid the French side of the war.
    • Also Sir John Fastolf. The battle portrayed in the play was due to rashness on Talbot's part, whilst Fastolf was a cautious, conscientious soldier who got the blame for Talbot's defeat.
  • Jeanne d'Archétype: Joan of Arc (here called Joan la Pucelle, or Joan the Pure), who has supposedly been sent by God to lead the French to victory.
  • Non-Action Guy: Henry VI, a bookish and pious ruler when England really needed a strong warrior.
  • One Scene, Two Monologues: Margaret and Suffolk's first meeting.
  • One-Steve Limit: The First Folio lists Fastolf's name as "Falstaff". Modern performances and printings use "Fastolf" to avoid confusion with the more popular character who died in Henry V.
  • Perspective Flip: By way of Pop-Cultural Osmosis—modern viewers (even English-speaking ones) are generally more familiar with the French version of the story of Joan of Arc rather than the English-favoring account which this play presents.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Talbot and Duke Humphrey. Interesting to point out that the only two Reasonable Authority Figures in the whole trilogy die early and that the rest suffer from Chronic Backstabbing Disorder.
  • Red Baron: Talbot, Terror of the French.