1 Henry VI depicts England's struggle to retain its military and political control over French territories gained by Henry V. The play reenacts, in somewhat truncated order, some of the events of the early reign of Henry VI, including infighting among the English lords and eventual loss of half the French lands.
This is one of Shakespeare's many history plays. Another 16th-century British playwright, Thomas Nashe (often credited with coauthoring this play), wrote about the importance of the history play as a genre, stating that they helped to preserve the memories of glorious English heroes such as the chivalrous Lord Talbot in this play. Nashe said that the history play creates a collective memory of the national past for the masses, celebrating the realm's heroes and particularly patriotic moments in English history.
In the modern age, Shakespeare's histories have fallen in popularity behind his tragedies and comedies. Many people, assuming them to be accurate textbook accounts of the events depicted, associate them with tedious story lines or imagine that they must lack dramatically interesting material. But this is not the case. Shakespeare drew on historical records of the times about which he wrote, but he condensed dates and events, reordering things if necessary in order to create dramatic tension and compelling plots. In this play, he makes Henry VI older than he was at the time of his succession; he was actually only nine months old, but in the play is of marriageable age. Moreover, some of the play's most striking scenes are of his own invention, not based in fact: for example, the scene in the Temple Garden, in which the followers of Richard Plantagenet and Somerset pick white and red roses as emblems of their opposing opinions on a point of law. This scene provides an explanation as to the origin of the War of the Roses, an affair whose actual origins are characterized by stultifying complexity and politics, not the spare aesthetic elegance of this scene.
Shakespeare's "history," then, actually takes the form of drama. Thus, he gives events a variety of different explanations. Without developing any consistent philosophy of history, Shakespeare gives equal voice to two predominant theories on the cause of 15th-century British turmoil: one theory reasons that history is the result of human choices and actions; another posits that a higher power watches and judges our actions and rewards or punishes accordingly--by this theory, the violence of the 15th century came as punishment for Britain's illegal dethroning of Richard II. In this play, some events certainly result from human decisions--and particularly human rivalries, yet we also see evidence of other, higher powers at work, particularly in Talbot's apparently inevitable fall and in Joan's ability to communicate with the supernatural world.
1 Henry VI's plot is driven by conflict. On one hand, there is the conflict between Henry's forces and the forces of the Dauphin Charles. Then, the argument between York and Somerset, echoing the struggle between Winchester and Gloucester in Henry's court, causes the Englishmen to give inadequate support to Talbot in the battlefield, thus, exacerbating the primary conflict. The message within these court struggles is that petty rivalries and internal divisions among the nobility can be as dangerous to England as French soldiers. Henry seems to recognize this truth, when he speaks about dissention as the "worm" gnawing on his kingdom--yet he is unable to end the crisis.
The warrior culture of the age is changing around Henry. After Henry V's death, lords cease to struggle in unity for the sake of the kingdom and nation, instead scheming for their own advancement. War even loses its chivalrous quality; Talbot represents the end of a tradition of valiant knights whose sole desire is to fight for the glory of their homeland. He is a man from a lost world where valor and honor were communally shared masculine ideals passed from father to son. By the end of the play, both Talbot and his son lay dead, and the future of English chivalry has died with them.
The English army suffers defeats in this play because of infighting and the soldiers' failure to live up to the ideal of Talbot, but also because of the strength of the charismatic Joan of Arc. Although Joan claims to enjoy the praise of the French as a virginal maid, the English call her a whore and attribute her powers to witchcraft. As a woman dressed in men's armor and playing a man's role on the battlefield, Joan violates the assigned place of a woman; fearful people often respond to such transgressive anomalies by labeling them "witches." Like many public figures of women, Joan's identity slips between the two polarities of "innocent virgin" and "immoral whore," as people assume a woman able to influence men must draw her power from some extreme of sexual existence. Queen Elizabeth, too, had the body of a woman yet the role of a man; so too did her situation provoke both reverence and demonization, both the title "The Virgin Queen" and malicious rumors of infertility or a sexual defect. Both Joan of Arc and Queen Elizabeth were unique figures who could be read as exceptional people or as horrible fiends.
Joan is interesting not just for the way she is received but also for her own personality: at first she is decisive and pragmatic, promising the end of the siege of Orléans and telling Talbot it is not his time to die in battle yet. She is uninterested in extended elegies over the dead bodies of nobles, seeing them merely as smelly corpses. Yet later in the play she is unable to communicate with the demons she summons, and by the fifth act she is reduced to a frightened figure who is so desperate to escape death that she first cites her virginity, then pregnancy, as reasons to be spared. She defeats Talbot and ends her life having lost all dignity.
All the other women in this play are dangerous to varying degrees. The Countess of Auvergne lures Talbot to her castle with the intention of entrapping him, and Margaret so enchants Suffolk that he convinces the king to marry her and, thus, gains undue influence over the throne. While all three women function as threats to English men, they are also more complicated than merely being the vessels for the birth of more warriors. We see Suffolk's uncontrollable desire to turn Margaret into something greater than a pawn for international settlements, and we see the French unable to win without the extraordinary aid of a woman. And we see that even strong kings like Henry V do not necessarily create strong successors in their sons. This play creates heroes of a masculine world, but it also acknowledges the potential weaknesses of men. Sometimes, in the case of Queen Elizabeth, a woman must step in, even becoming king.