Henry VIth Part One

The pious madness of Henry VIth

The fact that Shakespeare’s history play, Henry VIth Part One was never registered at the Stationer’s Office is partially overlooked by academics. A good deal of Act 1 was actually written by the playwright Thomas Nashe and Shakespeare’s contribution occurs at Act 2, scene 4 (the Temple Garden) and in other parts of the play. We also note that Shakespeare was the only playwright who expressed an enthusiasm for writing plays about earlier English history in particular The Wars of the Roses (Richard II to Henry VII), although it was Sir Francis Bacon who, while imprisoned in the Tower for his own misdemeanours was able to complete the play Henry VIIth. The play was probably composed during 1587-90 just after the failed Spanish invasion so must have been the consequence of celebrating England’s past, its heroes and their conquests over other rival nations such as the French. However, it is evident from the text that historical accuracy was sacrificed in favour of a sense of superior nationalism and dramatic effect in uniting the nation. In this sense these histories are really the work of a propagandist or “spin-doctor” working for the Crown and other noble families. A total of 8 plays were written during this rather patriotic period drawn from Edward Hall’s “Union of the Two Noble and Illustrious Families of Lancaster & York” (1548) and Raphael Hollinshed’s “Chronicles of England, Scotland & Ireland” (1587). The only recording of its first performance was by Lord Strange’s Men on 3rd of March 1592 and was subsequently repeated fifteen times within a period of 10 months (recorded in Thomas Nashe’s Piers Penniless 1592).

The play opens with the block-buster opening speech that would leave the makers of “Star Wars” lingering in the dust:

Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!
Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky,
And with them scourge the bad revolting stars
That have consented unto Henry’s death!
King Henry the Fifth, too famous to live long!
England ne’er lost a king of so much worth.

For some time scholars presumed that Shakespeare had written this tetralogy of historical plays fairly late in his career but as it turns out they were in time corrected with their presumptions to a much earlier date (1590). In fact these were the very first historical dramas to reach the London stage suggesting a mature, totally professional dramatist had an almost meteoric rise to prominence and public attention. It features a series of battles and confrontations as the English forces attempt to retain their fiefs and territories in France. It should be mentioned that this play had already been made available in quarto and octavo versions by an anonymous hand, their actual date of composition unrecorded. Historical accuracy, as is common with several of Shakespeare’s history plays, is sacrificed purely for dramatic effect. For example, Henry VIth was only 9 months old when his father, Henry Vth died and England was ruled by the Lord Protector, the Duke of Gloucester and the hero of the play Talbot never actually captured Rouen but topical allusions are made to the Earl of Essex’s adventures and triumphs in France. The Temple Garden scene is also pure fabrication and an expression of English, romantic idealism on the final outcome of the protracted “Wars of the Roses”, in which roses were never picked or for that matter employed as emblems to identify the rival houses of York and Lancaster. The obvious question naturally arises; “what was Shakespeare’s view, intention and philosophical approach to the subject of English history when he composed these plays?” Was he highlighting God’s wrath on Henry IVth for his cruel deposition of a rightful monarch (Richard 2nd) or simply retelling an already “tall tale” of English national identity? Nor do the history plays unfold instinctively as if the “players” are merely victims of fate or their own poor attitudes or failed decisions. Instead they unfold as some events that took place in the fantasy land of national pride. Today, of course we would simply have labelled these stories as “fake news”, which was heartily “sucked up” just after the Spanish Armada was vanquished largely by poor weather conditions and maritime incompetence by the Spanish fleet than by any single military strategy or singular heroic action. What the play actually highlights is that internal, petty rivalries, quarrels and tribal divisions can destroy and undermine an army more effectively than any vast and overwhelming invasion. The “Boy-King” makes it known in act 3, scene 1:

Believe me Lords, my tender years can tell
Civil dissension is a viperous worm
That gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth.

In this sense the play is a clarion call for “National Unity” just as the news of the Armada would have united all hands on deck. However, what emerges out of this maelstrom is a juxtaposed drama featuring England’s alpha male, Talbot pitted against France’s alpha female, Jeanne D’arc, protector of the Dauphin. In fact the play appears to favour an over weaning masculinity against an unpredictable feminism and falls in a national sense on the side of a longing for a male heir on England’s throne after so many tired years of Elizabeth’s reign; as she remained childless and unmarried.
In Act 4, scene 6 Talbot’s son undergoes a rite of passage synonymous with a girl losing her maidenhead or having her first menstruation:

The ireful Bastard Orleans, that drew blood
From thee my boy, and had the maidenhead
Of thy first fight, I soon encountered,
And interchanging blows, I quickly shed
Some of his bastard blood.

I have already written in my book Shakespeare’s Qaballah describing Shakespeare’s highly charged masculine/feminine dramatic and poetic narrative (Eros & Chaos) infused with a certain sexual imagery (eg: Venus & Adonis). Despite this polarisation of national icons England’s heroic male, Talbot and France’s divine heroine both die apparently for nothing, England losing the war and Joan of Arc being tried for witchcraft and being burned at the stake. Joan Pucelle, as she was known (French word that means “whore” (viz; puzzel) is for the most part characterised as a “prophetic messenger” sent from God or a “diabolic whore sent from Hell”. And what is worse she actually dresses like a man, not unlike the boy players who dressed like women in order to undertake their female parts on stage. Similarly, Queen Elizabeth dressed in male armour and mounted a horse at Tilbury in order to rally the English forces against the Spanish invasion. But the most remarkable thing about Joan is that she speaks truth to power for example on the death of Talbot:

“Him that thou magnif’st with all these titles, stinking and fly-blown lies here at our feet.” Or when the Duke of Burgundy is persuaded to join the French: “Done like a Frenchman, [aside] turn and turn again”.

But she is depicted by the playwright as someone who freely and willingly consorts with “demons”; who nevertheless reject her wishes and pleas for mercy because she is pregnant with child. Furthermore, two other powerful French aristocratic women, in contrast to the peasant shepherdess, threaten the “manhood” of the English court; the Countess of Auverne and Margaret of Anjou. The former has the task of incarcerating the ferocious English hero, Talbot in his cell, guarded 24 hours, while the latter conquers the English King and divides his forces with her grace and beauty. Even in the list of dramatis personae the actors are divided into the “English” and “The French”. This play could have been a remarkable dramatic epic but resigns itself merely to familiar tropes of national pride on both sides which, in the end, is unjustified. Rather it seems to sum up a typical English national characteristic to applaud the guy who tried but ultimately failed and to denigrate the gal who succeeded by being canonised as a saint. “Divided we stand, united we fall” could very easily be the motto contained in this play where a woman, with her courage, modesty and innocence is able to unite an entire country against a common foe. Perhaps the play intended to leave an audience polarised in their views of what it means to be English. I have already written about the prevalence in the widespread belief and practice of witchcraft around the late 1590’s in my review of Macbeth and in what context witches were taken seriously in Elizabethan England. I recently discovered that in the 15th-16th centuries that King James VIth of Scotland killed the largest number of women throughout Europe who were accused of witchcraft, tried and tested in peculiar ways and finally burned at the stake. A greater number than were killed in the Spanish Inquisition apparently.

The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


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The links to my publications 
“Shakespeare’s Qaballah”,
a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry,