Stratfordians quibble about the authorship, or extent of Shakespearean authorship, of this first play in the Henry VI trilogy. "If he wrote it at all, the marked disparity between its best and its worst passages would seem to indicate that he revised certain parts of it some time after it was originally composed" (Goddard, I 28). In any case, it's considered an early play, lacking the psychological subtlety we come to expect. Clark largely credits the "'University wits,' whose work for the stage was being done under the direction of the Earl of Oxford" (Clark 791; cf. Ogburn and Ogburn 730, 772). She dates the play to 1587, at which time the key topical references are to the execution of Mary Stuart, the funeral of Philip Sidney, and peace negotiations with Spain (Clark 791ff).
"The Elizabethan educational system, preoccupied as it was with the classics, did not offer instruction in English history" (Wells 86). Shakespeare is using Holinshed's Chronicles (1577) -- dedicated to Lord Burghley) -- and Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke (1550) -- in the library of Oxford's childhood tutor Sir Thomas Smith (Farina 132). Despite the lack of models for this new dramatic genre, "It is clear that he wanted to elevate the material of history, not simply to present a series of events in doucmentary style" (Wells 87). Thomas Nashe referenced this play specifically in his praise that "plays based on 'our English chronicles' do good by celebrating 'our forefathers' valiant acts' and setting them up as a 'reproof to these degenerate effeminate days or ours'" (qtd. in Wells 88).
"King Henry VI becomes a figure of authentic pathos, not at all heroic, in Parts Two and Three, but in Part One his true piety and childlike decency are only hinted at, as he rarely appears on stage, and then only as a presage of future disasters" (Bloom 46). The Henry VI plays "are an attempt to answer the question: What is the cure for chaos? ... Here, writ large, was the truth that chaos in the state is part and parcel of chaos in the minds and souls of individuals, that the political problem is, once and for all, a function of the psychological problem" (Goddard, I 29). "Henry VI himself is only emergent as a character in this play, in which most of his time on stage is spent in well-meaning but pathetically inadequate attempts to keep the peace among his brawling nobles" (Wells 91). "The last thing that 16th-century groundlings wanted to hear was a haughty nobleman of the realm encouraging them to put aside their differences and die for their country" (Farina 144).
"The young Shakespeare ... began with historical cartoons declaiming historic bombast" (Bloom 44). The funeral for the admired Henry V yields anxiety and infighting among dukes. "Scarcely is the body of the conqueror of France cold in death when the leaders of church and state begin hurling defiance at each other across his coffin ... and right in the middle of a sentence in which the victor of Agincourt is being compared with Julius Caesar a messenger enters, followed by another, and then another, announcing the crumbling of his newly won empire in France" (Goddard, I 29). The Bishop of Winchester is Henry Beaufort, second of three sons of John of Gaunt and Catherine Swynford; Winchester's reference to Gloucester's "proud" wife (I.i.39) "comes to nothing, but foreshadows important events in Henry VI, Part Two. Perhaps this is one of those inserts whereby Shakespeare tried to make this play fit the two succeeding ones" (Asimov 522). Clark suspects some of the lines apply to an honoring of the dead Sir Philip Sidney in 1587 (Clark 792; cf. Ogburn and Ogburn 766).
Gloucester as Lord Protector is honorable but many others jockey for power. Recently conquered French cities are already declaring their independence from England and the Dauphin Charles has been crowned King of France (Charles VII). Lord Talbot, general of the English armies, has suffered a defeat, largely due to the cowardice of Sir John Falstaff (or Fastolfe). The young Henry VI also seems in danger from the Bishop of Winchester.
Henry VI, Part 1 holds the distinction of introducing the name (if not the fully developed character) of Sir John Falstaff to the English stage. This was actually a corruption of the historical Sir John Fastolfe (a name used in some modern editions of the play), who like Joan of Arc did not deserve the ridiculous treatment he receives from the Bard. Shakespeare the dramatist, however, needed an English scapegoat who was a "coward" (I.i.131) and perhaps decided to change the name slightly, playing upon his own name ("shake-speare" versus "fall-staff"). (Farina 134)
"This passage, as it happens, is sheer libel on a brave and sensible officer, who is made the goat for Talbot's folly" (Asimov 528); "This is an example of what those who have studied history well know: When stupidity is considered patriotism, it is unsafe to be intelligent" (Asimov 529).
In Orleans, the newly-crowned Charles discusses with Reignier and the Duke of Alanson (Alençon) their successes and, soon, the English army's fortitude. The French seem pretty cheesy. The Bastard of Orleans announces a female soldier/prophet, Joan la Pucelle (or de Pucelle = Joan the Maid, Joan of Arc). "Shakespeare, following the chronicles, presents her not as a saint but as a fraudulent witch and whore" (Wells 90). "Bawdy and unpleasant in certain scenes, courageous and direct in others, this version of Joan of Arc defies criticism.... Why should she not be both a diabolical whore and a political-military leader of peasant genius? Strident and shrewish, she gets results" (Bloom 45). Historically, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431, even though "she takes part in a battle of 1451 in which Talbot's death is advanced by two years" (Wells 90). The elder Ogburns connect Joan Pucelle with Mary Stuart topically, again asserting a 1587 dating of at least a version of the play (Ogburn and Ogburn 773).
The King has Reignier pose as him, but Joan is not fooled. She claims to have been ordained by heaven to drive the English out of France. She bests Charles in a swordfight, so he trusts her and is attracted to her. "It seems strange that Joan should be promising the French good times in images that imply brief periods of fortune only. (After all, both St. Martin's summer and the halcyon days are followed by the real winter.) It is not, however, Joan that is promising, but Shakespeare, and undoubtedly that is all he is willing to give the French, regardless of history" (Asimov 534).
Interestingly for Shakespeare studies, the historical Joan of Arc, early in 1429, had to cross dress to pass through English-controlled territory (Asimov 532). "Joan, known as La Pucelle, the Virgin (or, as her name sometimes appears in the Folio, Joan Puzel), represented the paradox of purity/promiscuity, since 'puzel' and 'pussel' meant 'slatternly woman' or 'slut'" (Garber 95).
At the Tower of London, Gloucester is blocked by Winchester, who obviously wants to seize political power. The Mayor of London halts a brawl between these two groups.
Among the British in Orleans, the Master Gunner prepares his boy for the watch. Salisbury escorts Talbot back, asking about his experience as a prisoner of war, which Talbot recounts as humiliating. A thundering shot rings out and Salisbury is hit in the face, blinded in one eye and soon to die. Talbot swears revenge.
Talbot does well against Charles but not so against a confident Joan, whom he duels and calls a witch. She taunts him.
Charles announces that Joan du Pucelle has indeed recaptured Orleans.
Since Charles has murdered his father, the Duke of Burgundy has defected to the English side. He is accompanied by Bedford and Talbot, and they discuss French arrogance. Talbot suggests a surprise attack on the sleeping French, which works pretty well. Charles is annoyed, but Joan blames a poor watch.
Talbot commands that the corpse of Salisbury be shown in the marketplace as a message to the French justifying his revenge. Charles and Joan have fled.
A plot to recapture Talbot involves the Countess of Auvergne inviting him to her castle. He plays her well, alerts his men, and averts capture.
"One of the most admired episodes is the emblematic and formalized scene ... in the Temple Garden, invented by Shakespeare" (Wells 89; cf. Ogburn and Ogburn 772) -- there is no source for this in the chronicles, particularly since "the White Rose of York became prominent only during the civil wars and the Red Rose became prominent only after the end of those wars as a counter to the well-known White Rose" (Asimov 548).
De Vere's own connection with this scene is that he studied law at nearby Gray's Inn which, along with the Middle Temple, was one of the four London Inns of Court. The scene opens with the characters quibbling over "nice sharp quillets of law" (II.iv.17), an activity that the legally trained and lilfelong litigant de Vere would have been well acquainted with.... (Farina 133-134)Richard Plantagenet (future Duke of York), Warwick, Somerset, Suffolk, and others begin an argument about the throne which will become the Wars of the Roses. Each plucks either a white or red rose. Warwick sides with Plantagenet and the Yorkists; Somerset and Suffolk go with the Lancastrians. Henry's absence from this scene signifies his insignificance -- both in and of himself and in terms of the coming dispute being a question of power rather than people.
Richard Plantagenet listens to his uncle, the decrepit Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, tell about the previous generations of English politics, especially Henry IV's usurpation of the thone from Richard II and the Percys' attempts to gain the thone for Mortimer who is in line from Lionel, the third son of Edward III, as opposed to Henry IV, descended from the fourth son John of Gaunt. Henry V imprisoned Mortimer, tellingly, and Mortimer makes Richard his heir now, then dies.
Gloucester and Winchester argue about a bill in Parliament and Henry VI tries to create peace, calling upon Gloucester especially when a public skirmish breaks out among the two men's followers. Henry makes Richard Duke of York, restoring him his royal bloodline. Exeter recalls the prediction that Henry VI would lose all that Henry V had achieved.
In an ahistorical scene, Joan and four soldiers in disguise infiltrate Rouen, making possible Charles' capture of the city. Talbot vows retaliation. Alençon rejects Talbot's challenge to fight in the field. A dying Bedford goes to the front to inspire the soldiers, but Talbot and Burgundy leave to gather their men; Burgundy will change sides again, betraying the English; and Sir John Falstaff (or Fastolfe) runs away, so that Bedford dies alone. But Rouen is taken by the English again.
That "Hecate" is trisyllablic in this scene (III.ii.64) suggests to the elder Ogburns that this was not one of Shakespeare's own contributions (Ogburn and Ogburn 773).
Between Rouen and Paris, Joan solicits Charles' continued support and vows to persuade Burgundy to abandon the English. This would be a blow to Talbot. Charles instructs "Pucelle" to "enchant" Burgundy, and she paints a poetic and patriotic picture of one's country being overrun with invaders. Burgundy is "bewitch'd" and rejoins the French (although historically his return happened only years after Joan's death).
Talbot offers a list of his conquests to the King and Henry VI, with respect for his service over the years, appoints him Earl of Shrewsbury. Despite these good times, the act ends with minor characters Vernon and Basset have a pre-Wars-of-the-Roses altercation.
In Paris, Henry is crowned by Winchester. Falstaff brings word of Burgundy's defection, but Talbot accuses Falstaff of desertion and Henry banishes him "on pain of death" (IV.i.47). A letter from Burgundy announces his alliance with Charles. Henry asks Talbot to tell Burgundy "tsk tsk" -- not real savvy political wisdom.
Richard Plantagenet (Duke of York) and Somerset inform the King of their dispute. Henry insists they must be united in view of the French troubles, and he plucks a red rose, thinking that this will show kinship among them all. He appoints Richard regent of France and wants Somerset to provide support. Exeter offers more grim commentary about the shape of things to come.
Talbot at the gates of Bordeaux tells the French to surrender. He is confronted with a French general who commands enormous numbers of troops.
Somerset, in a snit, has not sent to Talbot the requested horses, as York learns. As for the reference to the "scarce-cold" body of Henry V, thirty-one years separated the death of Henry and the battle in which the Talbots die (Garber 91).
Sir William Lucy blames the slaughter on the York-Somerset feud. Somerset now sends the horses, but it will be too late.
Talbot tries to persuade his son John to leave the battle, but the boy insists on remaining.
The Talbots fight side by side, but they're doomed.
Talbot laments the death of his son and himself dies. Joan allows Sir Lucy to collect the dead. Lucy claims that "from their ashes shall be rear'd / A phoenix that shall make all France afeard" (IV.vii.92-93).
Gloucester reports to Henry that the Pope requests peace between England and France, and he says that a marriage between Henry and the daughter of the Earl of Arminack (Armagnac) would achieve this peace. Winchester "in cardinal's habit" enters, and Exeter recalls a former prophecy suggesting that this signals power equal to the crown, and Winchester does behave arrogantly. Henry agrees to the marriage.
A scout tells Charles and Joan that the English are headed towards them on the plains of Anjou.
Joan summons spiritual aid but is forsaken. After a fight between Burgundy and York, the French flee and leave Joan behind.
Suffolk is taken with Margaret of Anjou, daughter of the King of Naples, Reignier, who is actually rather poor. Suffolk wants to arrange a marriage between her and Henry, which her father supports if it means peace in his territories.
Summoned before York and insulted, Joan denies her shepherd father and claims loftier lineage. She claims that she is chaste, then says she is pregnant by Reignier (soon to be Henry's father-in-law). Joan is condemned and taken off, cursing the English. Clark suspects a topical connection to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1587 (Clark 793).
Winchester brings news of a peace treaty. York is enraged at the idea of compromise and predicts the entire loss of France. Charles at first takes umbrage at the notion of being viceroy and subservient to the English crown, but Alenç on advises him to accept this now to bring about peace and break the truce later "when your pleasure serves" (V.iv.164).
In London, Suffolk tries to push through the Henry-Margaret match. Gloucester warns that breaking the engagement already struck will offend an important ally. Exeter mentions the financial issue, also supporting the engagement. But Suffolk convinces Henry and the King sends him to retrieve Margaret. Suffolk has the final word in the play, gloating over his powerful influence now: "Margaret shall now be Queen, and rule the King; / But I will rule both her, the King, and realm" (V.v.107-108). Of course, Margaret will prove to be "a Trojan horse, a treacherous and dangerous gift" (Garber 99).