When your play starts with the death of one of your country's greatest leaders, it's unlikely to be a comedy. When it ends with that leader's less-than-assertive son about to make a spectacularly bad marriage, politically speaking, all our worst suspicions are confirmed. Things don't look so good for Henry. Or for England. We can pretty much see the clouds gathering.
And, of course, along the way there are battles with France, men who die because other men can't stop their petty arguing (we're looking at you Somerset and Richard; R.I.P. the Talbot men), defections to the other side (see ya, Burgundy), and old men whose last breaths sow the seeds of unrest (way to go out with a bang, Mortimer). There are happy plays and then there's this one, which not only teems with darkness in its own right, but sets a grim stage for the play that follows.
Most importantly, this is historical fiction. Shakespeare tells the stories of English history in a way meant to be entertaining and educational, emphasis on the entertaining. History's great and all, but sometimes it needs a little something-something to really make it compelling to watch—and Shakespeare definitely wanted people to show up and watch.
But Henry VI, Part 1 fits into a few other genres, too. Lots of battles? Check. Swordplay galore? Check. Comrades at arms fighting and dying together? Check. Written to be performed on stage? You betcha. This is definitely a war drama.
The play also has a lot of growing up in it, which places it in the coming of age genre as well. Talbot's son grows up, courageously taking on responsibility in the battle that kills him; Joan of Arc learns to lead and then faces defeat (two necessary components of growing up); and, of course, Henry VI gets, well, older. Jury's still out on the whole growing up bit when it comes to him.
Okay, this one looks pretty obvious: Henry VI, Part 1 is names after the central character, Henry VI. But wait—it's not as simple as it looks. Which doesn't mean it's super complicated, just that there's a little more going on here than initially meets the eye.
The fact that this play is named after Henry VI positions it in contrast with his father Henry V (whom Shakespeare also gave the old theatrical treatment to), kind of the way that viewers think of Star Wars: A New Hope as being about Luke and Star Wars, Episode II as being about his father, Anakin. It also means that people will associate it with Shakespeare's other history plays, especially Henry VI, Part 2 and Part 3. In other words, when it comes to the name of this play, it's all about positioning it in a larger context.
Things do not look good for our heroes. The war in France has not been a smashing success, and Henry VI is about to ignore Gloucester's advice and marry a poor woman whose political connections aren't great—and not only that, but he's dumped a rich lady with better connections in order to do this. Oh, and Suffolk, one of the noblemen, is comparing himself to Paris, the dude who kicked off the Trojan War and utter disaster for himself and his people by stealing someone else's wife. Always a promising comparison… not.
To Shakespeare's audience, this is historical fiction. Medieval England and France are important in this culture the way, say, Revolutionary or Civil War history are in American culture. Henry V had status then the way George Washington or Lincoln do for us now. But like any biopic director hoping to make a fortune, Shakespeare also changes history now and then to make things more exciting. So quote Shakespeare all you want, but be sure to check your historical facts first.
You can definitely do this. You may need to do a few mental calisthenics and pack your parka, but we totally believe in you. Sure, the language is old-fashioned, but it doesn't have those long speeches about philosophy like Hamlet, and there are lots of fight scenes to keep things exciting.
The English history is a bit confusing, what with all those Henrys and Fifths and Sixths flying around, but we totally have a cheat sheet for you, complete with the names of all the kings in this time period as well as Shakespeare's plays about them. Our handy little guide also explains why someone can be named Richard and called York by all his pals, which is totally useful info and—believe it or not—happens all the time in Shakespeare.
Shakespeare's famous for blank verse in his plays, and Henry VI, Part 1 falls right in line. Blank verse has no rhyme, instead featuring iambic pentameter, which has ten syllables per line, and follows a pattern that roughly emphasizes every second syllable. Check out this example from the play—we've added italics to show the stresses—when Gloucester is praising Henry V, and he says:
His brandished sword did blind men with his beams;
His arms spread wider than a dragon's wings; (1.1.10-11)
But Shakespeare's also famous for breaking the rules to make a point, and to keep things interesting. Can you imagine if this entire play followed the same rhythmic pattern? No thank you. So from time to time Shakespeare does something else, like throwing in a rhyme. When this happens, chalk it up to Shakespeare's poetic license—but also pay attention. Sometimes when patterns are broken, the writer is trying to get our attention.
Henry V himself is a symbol of so many things in the play: England, kingship itself, the courage and macho necessary to dominate on the battlefield, the political savvy and sometimes ruthlessness needed to be a king, the generally-trying-to-be-a-good-guy qualities that balance out that ruthlessness—basically, if it has to do with awesome kingly leadership, Henry V represents it.
Because he represents so much awesome, Henry V's death makes us wonder if there's anyone who can fill his suit of armor. And as this play ends, the answer seems to be a pretty solid no. Henry VI might finally be old enough to rule, but he clearly lacks the savvy his father possessed—just consider his decision to ditch his fiancée for Margaret to see how naïve the young king is in action. Henry V's death is a constant reminder of just how uncertain England's future actually is; the leadership hole he left remains to be filled as the play ends.
Fun fact: Though we don't see it yet in this play, there's about to be a civil war in England. And guess what it's called: The Wars of the Roses. So yeah, the red and white roses mean a whole heckofa lot in this play.
In Henry VI, Part 1 we witness a scene in Act 2, Scene 4 in which Somerset and Richard ask their followers to choose either red or white roses to indicate their allegiance. White roses represent the house of York (a.k.a. Team Richard) and red represent the house of Lancaster (a.k.a. Team Somerset). Team Richard wins pretty handily, to Richard's delight. So here, then, we can see the roses not only representing the two houses, but also popularity, with Richard clearly preferred over Somerset.
Later, however—in Act 4, Scene 1—despite a pretty decent attempt to quell the arguing between Richard and Somerset's factions, Henry VI makes what we'll call a rookie mistake: He pins a red rose on, while claiming to like both men equally. He may mean it—he generally seems pretty earnest in his communications—but actions speak louder than words sometimes, and this is totally one such instance. Henry could say all day long that he loves them both, but so long as he has Somerset's red rose pinned to his chest, no one is going to buy it.
At this point, the roses also become symbols for Henry's naiveté. He goes from giving a pretty good pep talk about making peace to completely undermining himself, just like that, when he decides to sport the red rose. So the roses not only represent this unrest between the houses of York and Lancaster, but also the inability of the King to foster stability. Which, of course, only becomes more true when the Wars of the Roses breaks out in Henry VI, Part 2.
The most important saint in Roman Catholicism, Mary miraculously becomes the mother of Christ while remaining a virgin. Seen as the mother of God, she is a symbol of how a woman can have dramatic, even supernatural, power. In other words, Mary is a biblically-backed symbol of the incredible power women are capable of possessing. And in a time when women are pretty much stuck in second-class citizen status, Mary is an acceptable—and rare—symbol of power for Joan to align herself with.
Because Joan is freaking powerful. She dominates in battle, not only stepping into male turf but pretty much owning it. But despite this undeniable strength, due to the unusualness of her presence, she still needs a little back-up. And while women today might turn to other women who've come before them in their field (or on the field, as the case may be), Joan doesn't really have that available to her. So she cleverly identifies herself with Mary, suggesting that her supernatural power comes from the Virgin.
The Virgin Mary, then, represents both Joan's power and the lack of other powerful women. She also, however, represents French Catholic culture at this time, a culture the British were none too keen on. And because of this distaste on the part of the English, the Virgin Mary is also a reminder of the limits of Joan's power. She may blow the Dauphin's mind, but in the end the British aren't having it, and they capture her and burn her at the stake with no concern at all for how the Virgin Mary might feel about this development.
This is a play, so there's no narrator point of view here!
Henry V goes and dies, leaving the English aristocracy in an uproar. The next king is literally a baby, the French territory Henry conquered is rebelling, and the nobles may not be able to get along while waiting for Henry VI to be old enough to lead. It's a series of unfortunate events, for sure.
The English aren't doing so well in France, since Joan of Arc turned up to lead the French troops. She may be a witch, she may be a saint, but no matter what, she's pretty kick-butt. And she's definitely a complication. What are the English to do?
It's a little hard to say what exactly the turning point of this play is. There are a lot of crisis moments, and not so much decisive action, at least by Henry. Maybe the climax is Henry getting crowned king in Paris, but he doesn't do very much. Or maybe it's Talbot's brave but failed attempt to fight off the French army and York's later capture of Joan of Arc. When Talbot dies, after all, there's no longer an English hero capable of really holding off the French, nor can the French army can't do the job without Joan. This is definitely a point of no return.
Well anyway, the English and the French negotiate for peace (they kind of have to at this point), and Henry agrees to marry a rich French noblewoman if it will help seal the deal. He's never seen her and isn't sure he's old enough to be married, but if it's good for his kingdom, why not?
In the resolution, everything's supposed to get tidied up so we have a nice clear ending. Apparently Shakespeare and Co. didn't get the memo. At the end of this play, Henry breaks off his engagement and decides to marry a poor woman one of his nobles thinks is hot. The play ends with that noble, Suffolk, planning to manipulate the king by sleeping with the queen. Resolved? We think not. At least there are two more plays to explain what happened.