Things to consider while reading Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3
The three plays devoted to the long reign of Henry VI are arguably the weakest of Shakespeare’s history plays; we take them all at one time. The schedule is so set up that we have a week’s break prior to this class, so you have two weeks to read three plays, rather than just one.
The Henry VI plays (all three apparently written in 1591), like Richard III (also 1591), which follows it in historical order, are among the earlier plays of Shakespeare’s career, and lack much of the nuance and subtlety of character and theme (especially the complex reflections on political theory) that will emerge in the later histories, especially Richard II (1595) and Henry V (1599).
The narrative of the reign of Henry VI is long, complex, and twisty: Henry himself assumed the throne at the age of nine months at the death of his father (Henry V), and he reigned for more than forty years between 1422 and 1471, with his reign interrupted from 1461-1470. He was widely regarded as an ineffectual monarch, and the puppet of his many ambitious advisors, during whose reign England lost much of the hold it had secured over France during the brief but energetic reign of his father. The latter part of his reign also saw French uprisings under Joan of Arc, whose death (widely regarded as a martyrdom by French Catholics) is chronicled fairly dispassionately in the play itself.
To understand the background of these plays, one needs already to be at least somewhat familiar with the events that take place in the so-called first tetralogy of history plays — namely the fall of Richard II to the usurper Henry Bolingbroke, son of John of Gaunt, who ruled in his own right as Henry IV from 1399 to 1413, and established some of the ground on which subsequent constitutional monarchy in England was based. His reign was never without trouble, and factions loyal to the memory and lineage of Richard II continued to trouble him to the end of his life. Henry V (who figures in Shakespeare’s two Henry IV plays as the wayward and enigmatic Prince Hal), born in 1486, thirteen years before his father’s usurpation, ruled in his own stead from 1413-1422, conducting a number of wars of conquest in France, enforcing a presumed right to the French throne.
Unlike the two Henry IV plays and Henry V, the three Henry VI plays delve more deeply into the specifically political issues of the day, and are a model for subsequent political drama down to this day. The events of these three plays also lay the groundwork for Richard III. Richard was eventually defeated and killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 by Henry Tudor (henceforth Henry VII). Henry VII was the father of Henry VIII, and the grandfather of Elizabeth I, who was the ruling monarch when all these history plays were written and presented.
I have put together a rather incomplete timeline showing at least some of the major players throughout the Wars of the Roses in order to help you disentangle at least the chronology. It will take more than that to completely make sense out of these plays and the events they are pointing to, but it may be a start. A thorough set of family trees would probably be helpful as well.
Here is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s page on Henry VI, Part 1. There are apparently no recent productions to report on.
Here is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s page on Henry VI, Part 2. There are apparently no recent productions to report on.
Here is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s page on Henry VI, Part 3. There are apparently no recent productions to report on.
Here is the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s page on the Henry VI plays. They are jumbled up with others, somewhat.
Here’s a summary of Henry VI, Part 1 on film.
Here’s a summary of Henry VI, Part 2 on film.
Here’s a summary of Henry VI, Part 3 on film.
Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 and what has come before
Themes that emerge in the play (only a few of the many)
Symmetries in the play
Problems in the play
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