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Henry VI Part 1

William Shakespeare

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Study Questions

Study Questions

Study Questions

Study Questions

Discuss the position of women within this play.

While the play does not portray any of its women entirely sympathetically, all three of the women characters nevertheless exceed their traditionally limited role. On the one hand, each of the women has her problems, especially as seen from the particularly masculine viewpoint of the male characters here--all public gentlemen and men of war. The Countess of Auvergne is a schemer who tries to entrap Talbot, as is Margaret, though she more innocently succeeds in her entrapment. And Joan is a very complicated figure, ambivalently sliding from being described as a holy virgin to a whore. Because she dons both a man's armor and a man's role, because she enjoys much power, the male soldiers and politicians demonize her. Yet while none of the women emerge as particularly honorable or admirable, they nonetheless contribute to the efforts of their nations in bold ways--not simply as mothers to new citizens. The Countess acts strategically to try to bring down her nation's enemy, Margaret becomes a complex maneuvering device in a political sphere, and the French men depend on Joan for their victories.

Consider Shakespeare's portrayal of the War of the Roses. Is his treatment of this conflict biased? Does he encourage us to support one side over the other? If so, how does he achieve this?

The scene in the Temple Garden seems at first to represent both sides equally favorably; the play never explains the nature of the point of law at the root of the argument, and, thus, we have no basis on which to judge the ensuing conflict. And both sides appear equally absurd in their squabbling over who will wear what color rose. Yet by the end of the play the audience may tend to lean more in favor of York, away from Somerset--toward the white, away from the red. Somerset's dealings with York in the wars in France appear to have directly brought about the death of Talbot, the most heroic figure in the play. York says that Somerset didn't send reinforcements in time; and indeed, Somerset basically admits that he didn't want to help York, and he generally exhibits no real sorrow over the death of the honorable Talbot. York, on the other hand, grieves in his inability to save Talbot. Thus, York ultimately appears the better man.

Shakespeare's history plays are traditionally named after the monarch in power during the era portrayed. If not for that convention, would you have named this play after Henry VI or would you have chosen another title?

To answer this question, we must consider what receives priority in the play and what the play is really about. Another title might emphasize the imminent War of the Roses and the Hundred Year's War. Or the most tragic and perhaps sympathetic figure in the play, Talbot, could well have lent his name to the title. Henry himself doesn't even appear until the third act of this play; he has fewer lines than most of his minor lords. He certainly doesn't seem like the "main character" and, in a different context, would probably not have been the play's eponymous figure.

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