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The First Part of King Henry the Sixth is a history play by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written in approximately 1588–1590. It is the first in the cycle of four plays often referred to as "The First Tetralogy".


Shakespeare's primary source for Henry VI, Part 1, as for most of his chronicle histories, was Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles; the publication of the second edition in 1587 provides a terminus post quem for the play. Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Illustrious Families of Lancaster and York appears also to have been consulted, and scholars have also supposed Shakespeare familiar with Samuel Daniel's poem on the civil wars.

English patriotism was at a high after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. This patriotism fed the fascination audiences had with history plays and led to their popularity with English audiences.

Date and text

Henry VI, Part 1 is one of the earliest of Shakespeare's plays, and its date of composition is a matter of conjecture and debate. It is typically assigned a date around 1588–1590. Academic opinion is divided as to whether the play is the first-composed of a three part series or a prequel to a two-part play written earlier. The latter option currently finds more favour.

Playwright Robert Greene makes a reference to Henry VI, Part 3 in 1592, which was later entered into the Stationers' Register in 1598, and was first published in the First Folio of 1623.

Some scholars, citing stylistic evidence, believe that Part 1 is not by Shakespeare alone, but was co-written by a team of three or more playwrights whose identities remain unknown, although Nashe, Greene, and Marlowe are common proposals. It has been claimed, however, that this theory is the result of 18th and 19th century distaste for the treatment of Joan of Arc.

Historical accuracy

The play follows the available historical chronicles fairly closely, while making occasional changes for dramatic effect. Nevertheless, compared to what we now know of the history of the first half of the fifteenth century, the play is a chronological muddle, showing, for example, the death of Talbot, which happened in 1453, in the middle of the play and the death of Joan of Arc (1431) towards the end; similarly, the play ends with Henry's marriage to Margaret of Anjou, which took place in 1445, but is depicted after Talbot's death and immediately following Joan's. Shakespeare also follows Hollinshed in confusing the two Edmund Mortimers, uncle (d. 1409) and nephew (d. 1424).

Some of the changes appear to have been made for patriotic reasons. The French are depicted as foolish and easy to defeat, perhaps because the Battle of Agincourtmarker in 1415 had created the belief among the English that their soldiers were superior to the French. The play implies that only internal divisions and aristocratic squabbling (represented by the feuds between Gloucester and Winchester and between Somerset and York) could account for the English defeat. In addition, Joan of Arc, a national heroine in France, is portrayed as a witch and a whore by Shakespeare. This depiction would have been in keeping with available documents in the English language from the fifteenth century, because the English had been her enemies in war.


The Diary of Philip Henslowe records a performance of a Henry VI on March 3, 1592, by the Lord Strange's Men. Thomas Nashe, in his Pierce Penniless, also of 1592, refers to a popular play about Lord Talbot, seen by "ten thousand spectators at least" at separate times. Apart from 1 Henry VI, no play about Talbot is known to have existed. Since Henry VI, part 3 was also acted in 1592—Robert Greene parodied one of its lines in his 1592 pamphlet A Groatsworth of Wit—, the implication is that all three parts of the trilogy were being acted in 1592.

Otherwise, 1 Henry VI has very little stage history; it remained unacted until 1906. In 1977, Terry Hands directed uncut productions of all three Henry VI plays for the Royal Shakespeare Company with Alan Howard as the King and Helen Mirren as Queen Margaret; in 1983, a BBC television production of the Henry VI trilogy, substantially uncut, was broadcast; it is now available on DVD. In 1987–89, Michael Bogdanov directed for the English Shakespeare Company a radical, self-declared 'leftist' staging which conflated the three Henry VI plays into two. The production was notable for its use of anachronistic and patriotic imagery and the performance of Michael Pennington in the dual role(s) of The Duke of Suffolk and Jack Cade. In 2002, Edward Hall directed Rose Rage, a two-part adaptation based on all three Henry VI plays, at the Haymarket Theatremarker. In 2006–08, the Royal Shakespeare Company presented, again uncut, productions of all eight of Shakespeare's Plantagenet history plays under the direction of Michael Boyd. These were staged in Stratford on Avon (at the Courtyard Theatre, built on the site of The Other Placemarker) and in London at the Camden Roundhouse.


The following lists the characters in the play and, where appropriate, links to the historical figures on which they are based)

  • Fiends appearing to Joan

  • Lords, attendants, warders, heralds, etc.


The play opens in the aftermath of the death of King Henry V of England (it was written before Shakespeare's play Henry V). News reaches Englandmarker of military setbacks in Francemarker, and the scene shifts across the English Channelmarker, to Orléans, where "La Pucelle" (Joan of Arc) is encouraging the Dauphin to resist. She defeats an English army led by Talbot (Sir John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury).

While in France, Talbot and fellow Englishmen are trapped in the castle of a countess, but Talbot is prepared and foils her plan. In England, Richard, Duke of York quarrels with John Beaufort, 1st Duke of Somerset over a triviality of law. The lords select red or white roses to indicate whose claim they believe is correct. King Henry innocently selects a red rose, aligning himself with Somerset and setting in motion the Wars of the Roses between the House of Lancaster, represented by the red rose, and the House of York, represented by the white. Edmund Mortimer, a leading claimant to the throne, is a prisoner in the Tower of Londonmarker, and declares Richard his heir. The young Henry VI honours both Richard and Talbot. Meanwhile, faction between Somerset and York deepens, ultimately costing the lives of Talbot and his son in battle against the French. On top of this dissension lies a long-running dispute between the Protector Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, Henry V's brother, and the powerful Bishop of Winchester, later Cardinal, Henry Beaufort. Meanwhile, Henry is under pressure from the pope and other heads of state to end the war quickly, and to this end agrees to marry the daughter of the Earl of Armagnac.

Back in France, York leads the English to victory in Angiers and captures Joan, who is sent to the stake. Beaufort arrives to organize a truce that dissatisfies everyone: York resents having the opportunity for complete victory snatched from his grasp, while the King of France resents becoming a viceroy under Henry. The Earl of Suffolk has captured a young French princess, Margaret of Anjou, with whom he falls in love. He arranges to have her marry Henry, intending to dominate the king through her.

This is one of few occasions in which Shakespeare ends a play with a lack of closure. This slack construction may be evidence of collaborative authorship (on which vide supra), or it may be because the play was written to be performed in tandem with Henry VI, Part 2, which continues the story. It also stands to reason that this lack of closure could be due to the fact that the play was written as a prequel to the others in the tetralogy as it essentially works to fill in their backstory.


  1. Edward Burns: The Arden Shakespeare "King Henry VI Part 1" introduction p.75.
  2. Charles Boyce: "Shakespeare A to Z" p. 274, Roundtable Press, 1990.
  3. F. E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion 1564–1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964; pp. 216–17, 369.


  • Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, eds. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Oxford University Press, 1986. ISBN 0198129262, ISBN 019812919X.

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