Study Guide

Henry VI Part 1 Themes

  • Politics

    Oh, politics. They're all over the place in Henry VI, Part 1. It is a play about kingship, after all—and boy, is kingship complicated. A few things to notice: (1) Lots of people have long-running grudges going, like Gloucester and Winchester or Somerset and York; (2) there are some genuine questions about whether Henry VI's family really should have gotten the crown; (3) Henry VI tries to skip a lot of the politics—his go-to tactic is just asking people to play nice. But this is all just the tip of the iceberg; politics are the name of the game in this play.

    Questions About Politics

    1. Why is Henry VI not so interested in politics? Personality? Age? Something else?
    2. If Henry's family did get the throne illegitimately, then who should have it now?
    3. Is there less political infighting on the battlefield where the English see the threat of the French more vividly?
    4. Does being a king require the nasty side of politics, or is there a way to be a good king just by being a good person?

    Chew on This

    Henry is more interested in being a good person than being a good king.

    It is clear in Gloucester that it is possible to be a good person and a good leader.

  • Power

    Political strength is just one kind of power in Henry VI, Part 1. There's also military power, rhetorical power, supernatural power—and if you're a king, you're sort of expected to have them all.

    You're supposed to be a good ruler, using your political power well; you're supposed to be kick butt on the battlefield and inspire your troops with your military power; you're supposed to give great speeches and amaze your troops with your rhetorical power; and while you don't need to be a saint, you are expected to be good enough to get God on your side as well. Not to mention the Pope, who's got major political power in this era. No pressure or anything, though…

    Trouble is, other people seem to have a lot more of most of these kinds of power than King Henry VI does. Talbot and Joan are way more impressive on the battlefield, for instance, and Joan appears to have supernatural powers galore while Henry doesn't possess any at all. At least Henry may turn out to be a decent public speaker. But given the choice between a king who did well in Broadsword Fighting 250 and a king who did well in Public Speaking 101, which do you think the nobles prefer?

    Questions About Power

    1. Is there a single most powerful character in this play? Or is power split up among different characters?
    2. What kinds of power would Henry VI need to grow in to be an effective king? Does he show signs of doing that?
    3. How much power do the French have? What kinds of power are they most successful at leveraging?
    4. Are there any kinds of power one doesn't need to get on in the world of this play?

    Chew on This

    Though she's ultimately captured, Joan is the most powerful person in the play because she claims power for herself against the most odds.

    Henry's lack of several forms of power doesn't matter—as king, his status makes him more powerful than anyone else.

  • Society and Class

    Society and class are a big deal in Henry VI, Part 1. The aristocracy is a little like a high school clique—hard to get into and filled with rivals. To be fair, lots of the members are pretty good at what they do. Talbot is definitely brave, loyal, and seriously impressive on the battlefield, for instance, but there's also some major exclusion going on. Take Joan for example: If it weren't for her claim of supernatural powers, it would be hard for her to get the attention of the French court since she's not only a woman, but the child of a lowly shepherd. Ugh.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. How does Joan's military success affect the way the French see her peasant origins?
    2. If Henry's family didn't rightfully inherit the throne, are they just regular aristocrats and not kings? Or is it worse yet? Should they be tried for treason, like York's family was?
    3. Why does Joan herself deny her peasant origins at the end?

    Chew on This

    The French nobility is willing to accept Joan as one of their own because of her military strength—with enough power, anyone can become nobility in this play.

    The French nobility never fully accepts Joan as one of their own—they may keep her around, but she never fully belongs.

  • Religion

    Religion is seriously complex in Henry VI, Part 1. What's going down? Catholic Christianity is the religion shared by both the French and English. Should be simple enough to keep straight, right? Medieval Catholics believe in God, whom they see as good, and in the devil, whom they see as bad and dangerous. But it's more complicated than that: Even if they share a religion, the French and English are opposed politically—and they both want to claim God is on their side.

    Adding to the mess is the fact that even though the French and English were both Catholic when the events of the play happened, this wasn't true when the play was written. By then, the English had mostly become Protestant, at least officially.

    And there were some big differences between Protestants and Catholics, especially when it came to praying to the Virgin Mary, Christ's mother (in short: Catholics did, Protestants didn't). So sometimes the play kind of acts like the English are Protestant, even though they were technically Catholic at the time that the play's action unfolds in. Suffice it to say that Shakespeare knew how to please his audience.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Why are the English convinced from the beginning that Joan is a witch instead of a saint?
    2. Why do the French describe Joan as a saint and also wonder if she might be having an affair with the French king? The two things seem contradictory in Medieval Catholic thought.
    3. What is the extent of Joan's supernatural powers?
    4. Does being a churchman allow Winchester status and power he wouldn't have otherwise?

    Chew on This

    The French want to believe Joan is a saint, but they aren't completely sure.

    Joan's powers aren't actually supernatural. Most of them could be pulled off with cleverness and luck.

  • Gender

    In Henry VI, Part 1, it is considered kind of doubtful for a woman to lead an army or fight in a battle. That's not to say women didn't get to do anything—after all, Queen Elizabeth is running England when this play is written—but societal attitudes were different. Joan behaves in what her time period would consider a masculine way, kicking butt on the battlefield just like Talbot. This, of course, contrasts with Henry VI, who doesn't show too much Arnold Schwarzenegger macho. They are sort of opposites in this way, each falling short of their gender expectations. Go team.

    Questions About Gender

    1. Is Joan more masculine than Henry VI, by the standards of the play? If so, where does that leave Henry? Use the text to support your claim.
    2. Are the French nobles threatened by the fact a woman is leading them in battle, and doing better than they could? How can you tell?
    3. Why are the English so insistent on seeing Joan as a sexually loose woman?
    4. How does Joan use the idea of the Virgin Mary to challenge gender stereotypes?

    Chew on This

    Joan is the most masculine character in the play.

    In Henry, Shakespeare challenges the assumption that men have to be great on the battlefield.

  • Patriotism

    What's it mean to love your country? The answer to that in Henry VI, Part 1 turns out to be a little complicated. It might mean being loyal to your king. But wait: Maybe your king's grandfather stole the throne. What's a patriot to do then? It might mean being loyal to your fellow noblemen. But what if they're bickering and fighting among themselves? Then perhaps it means supporting your allies. But what if they change sides like Burgundy? Maybe it means loyalty to the land itself, though if people you know are fighting over it that may mean betraying friends.

    In short, patriotism is totally important in this play… it's just not super clear what it looks like.

    Questions About Patriotism

    1. What does it mean to love a country in this play? How do you know? Is it different for the French and English?
    2. Who is the most patriotic character in the play? Do others see them this way as well?
    3. Is patriotism different for women and men? How so? Use the text to support your answer.

    Chew on This

    Henry VI may not be a great leader, but his loyalty to England makes him the biggest patriot in the play.

    Ultimately, no one is truly patriotic in this play—everyone just defines the word to suit their own personal needs.

  • Memory and the Past

    Remember back in the old days, when there was no homework, the streets ran with gold, and it was sunny every day? Yeah, we don't either. Were there ever any old days where everything was perfect? Of course not. But sometimes there were old days when your kingdom was more kick-butt, and the English aristocracy is having some serious and not-entirely-misplaced nostalgia in Henry VI, Part 1. Whatever his flaws (and there were some), Henry V was a strong leader who managed to unite his people and win battles.

    Here's the catch, though: In remembering Henry V, the English are in danger of thinking so much about the past they fail to succeed in the present.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Would Henry VI be freer to define his own path if his father hadn't been quite so awesome on the battlefield?
    2. What paths forward are available to the English nobles?
    3. Do the English actually need the lands in France? Or are they clinging to them because they represent an idealized version of the past?
    4. Is memory of the past ever a positive force? Use example to support your answer.

    Chew on This

    The English should just let the French keep their lands, and concentrate on building a bright future in England.

    Kings can never escape the nation's past.

  • Language and Communication

    Henry VI, Part 1 is about battles, right? So who needs language and communication skills? Pretty much everybody, as it turns out. Language is a really important way that people exercise power in this play. Tough guy warriors like Talbot are also really skillful with language, and it's a major way that Joan persuades people to do what she wants. Also, speaking well is about all Henry VI does, except for being really nice and awfully naïve.

    And other kinds of communication matter, too, like the symbolism of the roses (get thee to the "Symbols" section to read up on this). So as it turns out, it's hard to run a kingdom without communication.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. Which characters succeed through language? Which characters don't?
    2. Choose two characters and explain how their language differs. Why might those differences matter in the play?
    3. What role does language play in resolving or feeding disputes? How does it interact with military power or physical strength?
    4. How do symbols like the red and white roses matter in the play? Do they do anything that language can't do on its own?

    Chew on This

    Joan's ability to persuade is her single most important source of power.

    Speech is great and all, but ultimately—without might in the mix—it doesn't get anyone anywhere.