You should know that I have a soft-spot for history and historical fiction. It follows, then, that I should find this play immensely interesting. Reading Henry VI Part One I got to do something I love and have not done in a very, very long time; I researched the historical context of the play and the events/personages depicted within it. Please note I use the term “researched” very loosely in this context.
Henry VI is part of Shakespeare’s War of the Roses cycle which is made up of two tetralogies. Shakespeare’s first tetralogy includes Henry VI (Part One, Two and Three) and Richard III. Henry VI Part One takes us from the death of Henry V in 1422 to the Treaty of Tours in 1444. His second tetralogy, which the Internets have taught me scholars (smart people with glasses who read books; see also academs) refer to as the “Henriad,” consists of Richard II, Henry IV (Part One and Two), and Henry V.
To give you a little background, the War of the Roses defined by the decades-long battle between the House of Lancaster and the House of York for the throne of England. The War gets pretty convoluted, especially when you start trying to follow lineage and to keep loyalties straight. Henry VI is a Lancaster and in Act II, Scene IV you can see Shakespeare has laid the groundwork for the symbolism of the roses and laid the foundation for the House of York’s move for the throne:
Since you are tongue-tied and so loath to speak,
In dumb significants proclaim your thoughts:
Let him that is a true-born gentleman
And stands upon the honour of his birth,
If he suppose that I have pleaded truth,
From off this brier pluck a white rose with me.
Let him that is no coward nor no flatterer,
But dare maintain the party of the truth,
Pluck a red rose from off this thorn with me.
The Houses eventually come to arms in 1455 after Henry VI goes through a brief period of insanity and looses his grip on the throne.
All of this is part of what’s known as the Hundred Years’ War which encompasses all of the fighting (there was a lot) between France and England from 1337 to 1453.
So much awesome already, right? And I haven’t even started talking about Joan of Arc yet! I can barely handle it.
On the French side of things, Shakespeare introduces us to “Pucelle” who is more commonly known as Joan of Arc. Joan’s story basically goes like this: God told Joan to go kick some English ass. Joan said okay and did exactly that, a lot, for a long time. The only problem with that was the English didn’t take too kindly to having their asses handed to them, and so they captured her, called her a witch, and burned her at the stake. No more Joan of Arc. Fun fact: Joan of Arc wasn’t sanctified until 1920 – nearly 500 years after her death.
In Henry VI Part One, we come on to the scene right after the death of Henry V, who had recently won a number of victories over France and been recognized as the legitimate ruler of France by Charles VI, who disinherited his son and recognized Henry V as the rightful heir. Our little Dauphin, Charles VII, was having none of that. With the support of the French people he claimed the French throne as his own. The events we see depicted in the play are that of Charles VII reclaiming his throne and territories with the help of Joan of Arc. That is, until the end of the play, when he does nothing to stop the English from burning Joan at the stake and he passes the throne back to Henry VI. Way to make me proud, France.
I now leave you with some of my favourite passages from Henry VI, Part One:
Act I, Scene V:
My thoughts are whirled like a potter’s wheel; I know not where I am, nor what I do;
Act III, Scene II:
But kings and mightiest potentates must die,
For that’s the end of human misery.
Act III, Scene IV:
Done like a Frenchman: turn and turn again!
Act IV, Scene I:
Good Lord, what madness rules in brainsick men
Act IV, Scene I:
Tis much when scepters are in children’s hands,
But more, when envy breeds unkind division;
There comes the ruin, there begins confusion.
Act IV, Scene V:
No more can I be sever’d from your side,
Than can yourself in twain divide:
Act IV, Scene VII:
O, were mine eye-balls into bullets turn’d,
That I in rage might shoot them at your faces!
Act V, Scene II:
Of all base passions, fear is the most accursed.
Act V, Scene III:
Wilt thou be daunted at a woman’s sight?
Aye, beauty’s princely majesty is such,
Confounds the tongue and makes the senses rough.
Act V, Scene IV:
But you, that are polluted with your lusts,
Stain’d with the guiltless blood of innocents,
Corrupt and tainted with a thousand vices,
Because you want the grace that others have,
You judge it straight a thing impossible
To compass wonders but by help of devils.
Act V, Scene IV:
May never glorious sun reflex his beams
Upon the country where you make abode:
But darkness and the gloomy shade of death
Environ you, till mischief and despair
Drive you to break your necks or hang yourselves.
Act V, Scene V:
Marriage is a matter of more worth
Than to be dealt in by attorneyship;
Not whom we will; but whom his grace affects,
Must be companion of his nuptial bed:
And therefore, lords, since he affects her most,
It most of all these reasons bindeth us,
In our opinions she should be preferr’d.
For what is wedlock forced but a hell,
An age of discord and continual strife?
Whereas the contrary bringeth bliss,
And is a pattern of celestial peace.