Henry VI, Part 1

(Shakespeare)
   Written probably in early 1590, Henry VI, Part 1, is the first work in William Shakespeare’s tetralogy (i.e., series of four plays) depicting the people and events of the WARS OF THE ROSES. The play is probably Shakespeare’s first attempt at historical drama, and it is considered by most Shakespeare scholars to be one of the playwright’s least successful efforts.
   The play covers the period from the death of Henry V in 1422 until the marriage of his son HENRY VI in 1445, although, because Shakespeare alters actual chronology for dramatic effect, some events that occurred after 1445 are included. Henry VI, Part 1, is concerned with the end of the HUNDRED YEARSWAR in FRANCE and with the beginnings of the Wars of the Roses in England.The play portrays a series of major disputes among nobles, thus painting a picture of mounting internal disorder that presages the outbreak of actual civil war in the following plays. While most of these disputes were historical, Shakespeare intensifies the political conflict and its likely consequences by compressing decades into a quick succession of scenes and by altering the order of events to build tension. For example, the struggle between Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, and Cardinal Henry Beaufort over the conduct of the French war, which extended from the 1420s to the 1440s, is immediately followed by the quarrel between Richard PLANTAGENET, duke of York, and Edmund BEAUFORT, duke of Somerset, rivals for command in France and influence in England, whose real feud extended from the late 1440s to 1455. By compressing and intensifying these disputes, Shakespeare reinforces the main theme underlying all his fifteenth-century history plays, namely, that the deposition of Richard II by the house of LANCASTER in 1399 disrupted the divinely ordained order and cost England decades of war and suffering. The most famous scene in the play occurs in act 2, when Richard Plantagenet (who in the play has not yet been recognized as duke of York) and Somerset argue in the Temple garden. Plantagenet plucks a white rose and calls upon all who favor his cause to do the same. Somerset picks a red rose and invites his supporters to do likewise. Richard NEVILLE, earl of Warwick, takes up a white rose, while William de la POLE, earl of Suffolk, claims a red one. Because a majority of the remaining characters choose white flowers, Somerset reneges on an agreement to let the dispute be settled by a vote of the roses. When the party breaks up with mutual threats, the coming of civil war is assured. Although the plucking of rose emblems is a visually powerful image that played an important role in the development of the term “Wars of the Roses” to describe the fifteenth-century civil wars, the scene is entirely fictional.
   See also Henry VI, Part 2; Henry VI, Part 3; Richard II, Deposition of; Richard III; Shakespeare and the Wars of the Roses; The Union of the Two Noble and Illustrious Families of Lancaster and York (Hall)
   Further Reading: Norwich, John Julius, Shakespeare’s Kings (New York: Scribner, 1999); Saccio, Peter, Shakespeare’s English Kings, 2d ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); the text of Henry VI, Part 1 can be found on-line at http://shakespeare.about.com/arts/shakespeare/library/bl1kh6scenes.htm.

Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Roses. . 2001.

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