BB: Henry VI part 1, An Introduction

Welcome fellow Brawlers to the brawl’s first history play, Henry VI, part 1.

As this is our first history play, you’ll forgive me if I go on a little bit before we get to our first podcast. You’ll thank me later.

Trust me.

If the more popular plays of the second Henriad (or tetralogy) – Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V – are Shakespeare’s Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, then you can think of three parts of Henry VI (generally referenced as 1 Henry VI, 2 Henry VI and 3 Henry VI) as his New Hope, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Richard III is whatever Star Wars movie Disney will make soon enough. Let’s hope George Lucas isn’t allowed anywhere near it. Han shot first!!

Like the ‘older’ set of Star Wars movies, Shakespeare’s first Henriad was written first, but describe events which take place at the end of the War of the Roses, with the Houses of York (the White Rose) and Lancaster (the Red Rose) vying for the British throne until the two roses are united with the ascension of Henry VII, the first Tudor king.

There is some disagreement as to which of the plays of the first Henriad (Henry VI parts 1, 2 and 3, and Richard III) were written first. Based on the little evidence which exists for dating the plays, most scholars agree that Richard III was the first history play that Shakespeare wrote or staged. That play, though, is chronologically the last in the series of Shakespeare’s War of the Roses sequels.

Confusing, we know.

But that’s not really important here anyhow. What is important is understanding the historical order of the action in the plays. The timeline should look something like this:

While each play is a stand-alone work (ie: you don’t need to read Henry VI part 1 to get part 2), the action and characters of the plays that come in the later plays pick up from events in the earlier plays. Again, kind of like the Star Wars trilogy.

Unlike the Star Wars franchise however, Shakespeare’s ‘prequels’ today tend to be seen as the better series of plays. The ‘Henry VI’ plays enjoy a bit of a bad rap with contemporary Bardophiles. They’re not often staged today despite being immensely popular when first staged in England in the early 1590’s. And while today the general wisdom prefers the plays which Shakespeare wrote later in his career, this doesn’t mean that there’s nothing interesting or enjoyable for us in these early Shakespeare plays.

Much like The Taming of the Shrew, which we just finished reading, Henry VI part 1 has a lot of action in it: there are whole acts devoted to fight scenes and enough duels and combats to make a Hollywood blockbuster many times over. With a play like this, contemporary audiences would have also been treated to a whole range of cool special effects: simulated thunder, lightning, explosions and gunshots. It made for an intense theatre experience. It really was a lot like going to see a blockbuster action movie. As if that wasnt enough, one of the main characters is the peasant girl turned warrior-maiden, Joan of Arc!

How cool is that?!

The other day Daniel said something which I think gives us a useful way of wrapping our heads around the War of the Roses: the War of the Roses was Tudor England’s WWII. It’s a good analogy. The characters and the events in Henry VI part 1 would have been familiar to Shakespeare’s audience in the same way that the major figures of WWII are familiar to us. We don’t need to be told about Churchill, Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito, Roosevelt and Stalin to understand a what’s going on in a WWII movie. We know who these people are. For theatre goers in 1592, it would have been the same for Talbot, the duke of Gloucester, Joan of Arc, Richard Plantagenet, the bishop of Winchester and the Dauphin of France.

Don’t worry, we’ll get to the characters and the play by play of the first act in the next post. In the meantime though, here’s the short version of what happens in the War of the Roses . This should help give you a good sense of just how important and relevant this story would have been to Shakespeare’s audiences.

The Houses of York and Lancaster each claim that they should be the rightful rulers of England. After Henry V dies, his nine month old son Henry VI becomes the next King of England. Obviously, he can’t rule yet so the Duke of Gloucester is appointed to rule as regent until Henry VI is old enough to take on his rightful title. Henry VI is a Lancastrian king but because he’s in no position to do anything about it, the Yorkists see an opportunity to reclaim the throne. People pick sides and what follows is a decades long struggle for power. The Yorkists do manage to get the monarchy back when Edward IV – who had been hiding out in France for a while – kills Henry VI. However, Edward`s younger brother Richard wants the throne for himself and manages to eliminate his elder brothers and take the crown. He’s killed by Henry Tudor, who becomes Henry VII, and not only becomes King of England but marries together the two warring houses and brings an end to the War of the Roses. (The symbol of the Tudors dynasty, the Tudor Rose, contains both a white and a red rose.)

At the start of the War of the Roses, England rules over France but the French decide they’ve had enough and they go to war with England’s occupying armies. They eventually name the Dauphin of France King Charles VII and they get busy trying to kick the English out. Because of their infighting, the English fail to properly support their forces in the field and are eventually beaten home.

For Shakespeare original audience, this wasn’t ancient history but not-so-distant family and national history. Consider also an important genealogical fact: Henry VII – the big winner of the War of the Roses – was Queen Elizabeth‘s grandfather and Henry VI was his uncle. This might give you some idea of why this play was so popular: everybody else’s grandfathers and great-grandfathers were reincarnated on the stage too, fighting out the same war that severed England from France and that (eventually) lead to Queen Elizabeth’s reign. So it was kind of a big deal in making the English, English and the French, French.

Now, with those preliminaries out of the way, stay tuned for the first act of Henry VI part 1!

If you’re still confused about the basic history, maybe this “third person action game set in 15th century England” might help.

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