And so we begin with Henry VI, Part One. As a history play, there is a lot to unpack in nearly every scene. An element of historical truth is feeding the narrative, and how Shakespeare and his audience perceived that history (or would like to perceive that history) will color the story.
This play in particular is a difficult one because so much history is packed into a single play. Events that actually took place over a 20 year period are put together in a single play. This is one reason most scholars believe Shakespeare was not the sole author of Henry VI, Part 1.
Key Words and Phrases
Effeminate: weak or cowardly (yes, this is sexist, but it was the late 1500’s so we’ll give them a pass)
Overawe: to keep in complete subjection
Henry V was a highly revered English king. He was a champion in battle and led England to major victories in France as the rightful King of France.
Henry VI took the throne at the age of 9 months old. He was largely considered an extremely weak leader, who was completely dominated by others.
The Duke of Bedford is Henry VI’s uncle and is the regent of England and France. He was a very capable leader, both politically and militarily. Historically, he is known as a peacemaker between the Duke of Gloucester and the Bishop of Winchester.
The Duke of Gloucester is Henry VI’s uncle and younger brother of Bedford. So long as Bedford is in France, Gloucester is regent of England. He was not considered a great leader and often acted in his own self-interest, instead of in the interest of England.
The Bishop of Winchester was Henry V’s half-uncle. He was both rich and politically savvy. Henry V did not entirely trust him and prevented him from becoming Cardinal.
The Duke of Exeter was Winchester’s younger brother and largely considered the least capable of the four, so he was charged with tutelage of the King.
The new leaders of England are lamenting the loss of their great king. Bedford curses the stars for bringing down such a great monarch.Exeter takes issue with this claim because it was obviously not fate that brought down Henry V. The stars love England! Obviously, the French used sorcery to take down the king because, really, how else could a Frenchman possibly take down an Englishman. That’s just silly.
Then Winchester laments that the king died despite the church’s fervent prayers. Gloucester scoffs at Winchester because he was a sneaky person who just wants to control the young king. He was a baby after all and babies are very impressionable. Winchester points out that is in fact Gloucester who essentially holds the crown, because again, baby king, and has been named protector. Some name calling ensues and Bedford hushes them because they are at a funeral after all.
This is when the messengers bust in to tell all of them how bad they actually are at their jobs. The first messenger lists off a whole bunch of territories that were just lost. This is list is primarily a literary device, and not to be taken literally. Those territories were lost over another couple decades of war, and some weren’t lost until the English left France. Exeter cries sorcery again and the messenger corrects him. It’s actually a lack of supplies and their feuding that is making them lose. Exeter probably still thinks it was sorcery…
The second messenger comes in and say that the Dauphin, Charles VII, was crowned in Rheims. It is important that Rheims was the location because that is the traditional place to crown kings. Up until this point the French people weren’t fully rallied between Henry or Charles. Each had their territories, supporters, and allies, but neither was a unifying force against the other. Then, Charles was crowned and bam! unity. Of course, this didn’t actually happen until 7 years after Henry’s death, but Shakespeare was not very concerned about accuracy.
The third messenger comes to put the final nail in the coffin. The great, the amazing Lord Talbot, the true hero of our tale, was captured. He was ambushed by the vile French and even though he was outnumbered, he fought well and took down many French. In the end, however, he was captured after the cowardly Lord Falstalfe. In reality, Lord Fastolfe, didn’t think it was a good time for them to engage the French and when they were arguing about it, the French attacked. One might think that proved Fastolfe wrong, but since one Englishman can defeat ten Frenchmen, walking away from any fight was cowardly.
Despite the fact that the above battle happened after the Siege of Orleans, we’re going back to the siege. Salisbury maintains the siege and is in desperate need of supplies. Bedford heads to France. Gloucester heads to the tower to survey the armory before preparing to crown the baby king. Exeter heads to the king because someone probably should, he is a baby after all. Bedford has nothing to do, so he says something vaguely threatening before leaving the stage.
Discussion Questions and Activities
- Start a family tree to keep all of these characters straight. Make sure to leave more room because the conflicts in England are essentially giant family feud. The French war is kind of a family feud too…
- Write about the events of this scene from the point of view of Bedford and Exeter. How are they different?
- How has Shakespeare changed history to better fit the narrative of a single play?
- Who is the villain? Is it Winchester, or Gloucester? What about the French?
- Start keeping a list of your favorite insults, especially against the French. The French insults are the best!