The Roughly Chronological Re-Read Week 8: Henry VI, Part I

Date:  Probably 1592.


First read: Circa 2005.


Productions seen: None, other than the bits and pieces I worked on. I’ll get round to seeing the 2016 Hollow Crowns at some point.


Productions worked on:  A couple of scenes at drama school.


Edition I’m using:   Same as for the other parts of Henry VI! Signet Classics.

Cheating by having one book for all three plays. Don't tell anyone.




  • Part of the way through this readthrough my husband flippantly referred to this as the “Star Wars prequels” of the War of the Roses plays. I think he hit the nail on the head. Calmer than the sequel/originals, more focused on the politics and less on the dismembering each other’s relatives and avenging dismembered relatives. But also less fun, a couple of decent action sequences notwithstanding.
  • Remember when I was writing about Richard III and I commented on Shakespeare’s passion for dramatic irony? Well, here we go again… So many hopes, wishes and promises concerning the peaceful future of England. LOL, Shakespeare. I see what you did there. I really hope you had friends who took the piss out of you for the devices you overused the way mine do.
  • Compared to the other Henry VIs, this one is much better paced. A reasonable amount happens in each act, it’s not a relentless flurry of events. I didn’t find it particularly interesting in terms of language, though. No big stand-out speeches that I’m still thinking about the following day, and only a small handful of individual lines. “Hung be the heavens with black” is a great turn of phrase, though.
  • We all remember how I feel about excessive couplets, right? OH. MY. GOD. Why must everything RHYME? I don’t appreciate it, Shakespeare or Nashe or whoever’s responsible, I really don’t. Especially outside of the comedies.
  • I barely get a sense of Henry VI himself as a character. Once again the chronology is strange – Part II opens with Margaret being handed over to Henry (having presumably had quite a time with Suffolk on the voyage), but he doesn’t come across as the same boy king non-character he is in Part I. The signs of his piety are there, I suppose, but it seems odd to see him less well-developed in the later play.
  • So Joan de la Pucelle, right… There’s a lady who deserved her own play. Shakespeare’s treatment of her is one of the things I find most interesting about this piece. Nowadays the only narrative we get regarding Joan of Arc is that she was a young woman who thought herself called by God to cross-dress and fight on France’s behalf. She was either a saint (in the colloquial rather than technical sense until 1910) wronged by those who failed to believe in her divine mission or a mentally ill girl wronged by a society that didn’t know how to help someone with hallucinations. The decision to reframe her religious extremism as witchcraft… I find it fascinating and would like to revisit this and give the matter its own post some time in the future. I’m not entirely convinced that it works, I think it’s a less sophisticated use of the supernatural than in Richard III and comes across as kind of a rehash of the Margery Jourdain material from Part II.
  • In addition, the need to tear down a French heroine says a great deal about the political relationship between England and France. God has to be on England’s side, which means he can’t be speaking directly to girls in drag on the French side, can he? And not only is she not touched by God, she’s an actual witch. And she denies her own father, crudely-drawn yet rather sympathetic bumpkin that he is, and she has the Dauphin dancing on the end of her seductress’ string, and she’s willing to sully her own reputation for the sake of a cowardly escape from her rightful execution. As character assassinations go, it’s a very thorough one.
  • Note to young female actors looking for audition speeches that aren’t woefully overdone – dear Joanie is your friend. Read this play.
  • Not having read the Histories for a long time and struggling to keep my IVs, Vs and VIs straight, I had a moment of confusion when “Sir John Falstaff” appeared. I’d forgotten about the existence of Fastolfe, as the historical figure in question was called and as his name appears in some other editions. A strange editorial choice on the part of Signet Classics, I think. The First Folio has a lot to answer for.
  • Well done to the Dauphin for being the only person in the entire War of the Roses who has any common sense in relation to corpse mutilation. Pro tip: if you’ve just slain some enemies and your friends want to chop them up as part of a power play, just say no. It’s not big and it’s not clever. And keep your handkerchief firmly in your pocket.
  • Suffolk and Margaret OTP ❤ ❤ <3. Someday I’ll figure out why I love these too so much, even though their relationship is woefully underdeveloped, there’s nothing right about either of them and he eventually dies a very silly death. It might have something to do with their first encounter featuring one of my favourite metatheatrical moments ever, where Margaret gets fed up with him talking in asides the whole time so she starts doing it too just to make a point.
  • Honestly, I don’t have much more to say about this one. It fills in some gaps that I’m not entirely sure needed to be filled in. It has occasional moments of interesting, ear-catching language but all too few. I’d like to see it on stage at some point, since I suspect it would come to life on stage – but given that it’s so heavy on couplets I will be very selective where ticket purchases are concerned.


NEXT TIME: Love’s Labours Lost

BONUS CONTENT: Our cat decided he’d come and listen to us read this one. He appeared to be properly into it. This is my husband reading it to him.

Mark reads Henry VI Part I to the Bobs


About jenbitespeople

Edinburgh-based writer, director, dramaturg, spoken word artist and acting coach. View all posts by jenbitespeople

2 responses to “The Roughly Chronological Re-Read Week 8: Henry VI, Part I

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