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Henry VI Part 1

William Shakespeare

Study Questions

Analysis and Themes

Review Quiz

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.

Consider civil dissention in this play. What metaphors are used to describe it? What threat does it pose?

A variety of leaders make their mark on the plot of the play. What different kinds of leadership do we see? Does any one kind seem better than any of the others?

In a story about struggles between England and France, the idea of nation comes into focus. What does this concept seem to mean to the French and to the English? How does patriotism come to differentiate itself from politics, particularly in England?

Joan of Arc's fame is not limited to her appearance in this play. How does Shakespeare's Joan resemble or differ from the Joan of other authors or media?

This play contains multiple battle scenes. How do you think these would or would not be effective in a small theater, such as the one used in Shakespeare's time, or even in a modern theater? How might you stage them if you were a director? Would you devote much time to them proportionately or privilege the play's dialogue?

Consider the idea of chivalry as it is played out within this play. How does the old mode of chivalry contrast with newer practices? Consider Talbot and Joan as figures of contrasting warrior cultures, both on and off the battlefield.

How much should a playwright sacrifice historical accuracy for the sake of drama? This play represents historical events but not quite as they happened. Many modern-day films do the same thing. Should a more compelling story take precedence over factual truth? What are the dangers of fictionalizing events while presenting them as "history"?

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A Young King and the Dangers of a Power Vacuum

by ReadingShakespearefor450th, April 30, 2013

I finished reading and blogged on Henry VI, Part One in effort to read all Shakespeare by April 2014. If it's of interest, my blog link follows:

http://ow.ly/kA2g5

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