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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.