Henry VI, Part 1 (1591) by William Shakespeare

This is one of Shakespeare’s least-performed, and least-well-regarded plays. It was written before any of the other history cycle pieces (“Richard II'”, the “Henry IV” plays, “Henry V”, and “Richard III”) but in the chronological sequence that many read them, it comes after an entire cycle, but before the masterful finality of “Richard III”. Opinion is also divided on whether it was actually the first of th e”Henry VI” plays, or a prequel to the other two, written after-the-fact.

Whatever the circumstances of its construction, it’s not a terrible play, but it’s certainly not half as engaging as the (chronologically) earlier historical ones. Moreso than many other Shakespeare plays, the propaganda elements here often get in the way of telling a more engaging story. Some of the political manoeuvring around setting up the War of the Roses, along with the depiction of Joan of Arc, reduce more interesting realities to triter, politically-acceptable depictions. There’s no inherent value to clinging to historical reality when a better story can be told by diverging (just look at “Macbeth” and its historical sources), but making the story less interesting seems misguided, although understandable given the circumstances Shakespeare was writing under.

There’s little especially memorable dialogue here, an oddity for Shakespeare (understandable given this was written at the start of his career though), but the slowly mounting tensions between various political camps in Henry VI’s feeble court are compelling.

Not unworthwhile, but still sometimes disappointing and often even dull, I give “Henry VI, Part 1” three red roses, and a white one too.

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